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The Boy

The mountain demands its due

By Alexander McEvoyPublished about a year ago Updated 8 months ago 24 min read
4
Photo Created using AI

Content warning: industrial accident, cosmic horror, reference to black lung, death, death of children, child labour.

Cracking like a whip, the same words that had chastened youths for generations in those hills snapped out and silenced opposition. “Run boy! Don't talk back! Warn everyone you see and don't stop until you’re out! I'll see if we can stop it.”

With a trembling nod and whispered, “yes, papa,” the boy turned and ran. It was critically important that he obey now, maybe more so than ever before in his life. Reports down the tunnel came back saying the canary was dead. That could mean firedamp.

Up, through the sloping tunnels, rocketing around the bends. He ran as though the devil was hard on his heels.

The stench of mine burned his lungs, coating them in the first layer of the fine black dust that would take his life just like all the rest of the men who worked the black seams. He hurtled up one tunnel then another, shouting, “firedamp!” at every bemused, blackened face he passed. The men blanched under the coaldust and sprang into motion.

Sweeter air called to him, but he turned aside at the last moment and shouted to a group hauling their cart up the rails. The same words as before, firedamp, one of only three things the miners feared on this earth. That word meant death, it meant burns, it meant a family tossed out into the cold to make way for fresh bodies from the cities. The men dropped their tools and ran, some bent almost double in the confines of the mine. Each had a place to be and a job to do, if there was enough warning then-

Wind pulled at his clothes with invisible, teasing fingers as he broke out into the fresh air and the burning sun as though the whole mine was taking one deep, shuddering breath. The explosion nearly deafened him right there, throwing him forward so hard and far he landed on his face right at the feet of Bossman Hennessy.

“Firedamp,” a coughing fit wracked his body, doubling him over on the ground as well as the steel-capped boot of the mine boss could have done. Finally spitting out a thick black glob, he looked back up into Hennessy’s merciless eyes and said, throat scratched raw, “firedamp.”

Around them people were running. Men who had been on shift change sprinting for the tunnel shouting for water, for help, for God’s mercy. Two out of three arrived in spades. It wasn’t enough, though. Not by half.

“I can see that there was firedamp.” The boy looked up at him, watched as the mine boss stroked one long mustache with a thick finger. He was thinking, that much was clear, but thinking about what? “This’ll put a slowdown on production for at least a week,” he muttered. “Cost the company a penny, but there ain’t nothing to be done about that. Have to double the shifts come Sunday… nah bastards wold riot… it’ll have to be Monday to get us back on target.”

Ferociously, Hennessy looked back down at the boy, snarling, “and what’re you doing here, boy? Came to see your daddy at work?” It was mocking, insulting, knowing. He had come running out of the mine right before the explosion, how could it have been anything else? “Well let’s just you and I wait around a bit and see if he’s one of the lucky ones today, shall we? Then we’ll see what to do about that mother of yours.”

The waiting was torture, watching men being hauled out of the smoke, leaning on friends’ shoulders or carried on the canvas stretchers kept handy for those who couldn’t walk out themselves. Miners, men the boy had seen as tougher than the mountains they all called home, limped out of the smoke weeping or screaming. More than one sported a broken limb or burns to make you wince juts by looking at them.

Finally, the sun dipped low and, Bossman Hennessy stopped shouting orders. A silence like those normally reserved for sermons and funerals descended on the crowd as everyone who still could, stood in half-circle and watched the smoke leak out of the hole in the ground that was all of their livelihoods.

One man – it was Old Bob, the man who’s foot long beard would have been white if not for the dust, older than old whose joints popped as he walked – stepped out of the circle, head bowed. The boy’s mind went blank, there was something about the way Old Bob walked, about the way he held his hands…

“Mr. Hennessy, sir,” said Old Bob, a voice that crackled with decades of smoke and dust, his hands still clasped around something. “We got the fire under control. Should be able to go down and clean up soon enough. I expect there’s still a few men…” he trailed off, moss green eyes locked on the boy.

“What I want to know is what we lost,” growled Hennessy, looming over the much broader Bob. “What I want to know, is why it happened in the first place. What I want to know is how soon we can get you all back underground and hauling up what you’re contracted to. What I want to know is-” his eyes lighted on the twisted metal in Bob’s hands and for a moment he hesitated before saying, “what I want to know is, why you’re wasting time. Out with it.”

Shifting from foot to foot, Old Bob turned his eyes away from the boy. He opened and closed his mouth several times, looking for all the world like a man who had forgotten how to speak. Giving a hopeless, heartbroken sound, he held out his hands. Instinctively, the boy took what was offered, knowing what it was deep inside before he even registered what he now held.

Still visible, there above the brim where the light would usually be, was a tiny wax drawing of a pink rabbit. A good luck charm gifted to his father by his little sister.

Hardpacked dirt raced up to meet the boy’s falling knees as they buckled, suddenly unable to take his weight. Around him the men all reached up and solemnly removed their own hard hats from their heads to cover their hearts. A sign of respect as ancient as hats themselves. All of them, that is, except for Bossman Hennessy.

“If y’all think you’re getting the rest of the day off because of this,” he started, hands on hips and chin jutted forward. “You best think again. We got a lot to get done before the day’s work is done so I suggest you have your little moment and get back on the line. Any remaining fires need to be put out, blockages cleared, tracks repaired, and them vents opened up. Oh, and any survivors found right quick, you hear?”

A sense of self-preservation might have held Hennessy’s tongue for the minute owed to the miners who died, seven that day. But he never had the good sense he was born with, as his mother used to say. The type of man who expected others to stand aside as he rumbled down the street, heavier by far than he had any right to be, and mean as a starved dog.

He looked down on the boy kneeling in the dust, gripping the twisted wreck of his father’s helmet to his chest, and twisted his lip to spit.

Stupid kid should have made himself scarce long time since.

Old Bob laid a hand on Hennessy’s shoulder, though, and stopped that fatal action. The boy’s father had been a well respected man, always among the first to run into danger or to give what little he could to the widows. Even in the hard years. Hennessy was literally going to spit on his memory which would rile the miners, already roiling in their grief, to a frenzy so strong that a burning mine would be the least worry in anyone’s mind.

“We don’t want any trouble,” said Old Bob, his thin hand like a vice on Hennessy’s shoulder. “How’s about we let the boy head home to tell his ma and us get back to work? Send one of the new guys with him, maybe the preacher’s son. She deserves to know.”

Bubbling with a fury that had no outlet, Hennessy shrugged trying to look unworried, and said, “get at it then. I ain’t got nothing more to say to him anyway.” Then, in an undertone to the boy, “I’ll be around your house later, son. Got to come to an arrangement with your lot now that the company’s house ain’t got a worker living in it.”

-0-

Generally, services were held on Sundays, the only day of the week guaranteed by the book as a day of rest for the miners. Of course, there are always special occasions when services can be held at other times.

The Preacher was sick, a trembling ache in the limbs that meant he could not be down in the mine; not anything that might hit his voice though. Nothing that meant he could not preach. Even the dreams could not stop him from preaching because it was Their message he preached. His own God long forgotten.

Michael stormed into the room, his mother’s protests still hanging in the air behind him, and told the Preacher what had happened. Told him in plain simple language that men had died underground. Exactly as the dreams had promised. Precisely why he was in bed, alternating between fever and chills.

A voice whisper in the back of his mind, the voice that had taken over from the Good Word so long ago and so secretly he never noticed the switch. It told him that it was time. The sickness fled from his bones and a weary determination let him heave himself from his bed.

Generally, services were held on Sundays and the families would sit vigil. But things needed to happen fast now.

Trembling, he sent his younger son scurrying around to tell the wives and the children of the miners to be at the chapel after supper. Then he sat himself down at a scarred wooden desk his grandfather had built and wrote out a message of kindness from the great beyond.

He worked through his own supper, carefully arranging the words of his speeches and his sermons, knowing full well that the small mining town could not support seven whole families alone. Knowing that no help would come from the company. Knowing that some of them were going to lose their homes and be needing help for the winter. Help that could not come from or be afforded by the people who wanted to give it.

Of critical importance was the message that unity and peace ought to win out over anything else.

Their lives were hard, no one would never doubt that. Their lots were short and that landed them in the mines, a place most of them did not mind too bad until suddenly the grim reality stood up and claimed one of their own. Until their sons were forced to follow in their footsteps, down into the hungry darkness under the mountains.

With a shake of the head, he banished the gnawing thought that it might have been his own boy Michael. He could not think about that, they made enough to get by and that was enough most of the time. He could only be thankful that Michael had been higher up and able to get out when the message to run had come. Counting his blessings that his was not one of the seven families that needed to ask for the Lord’s blessing and protection this evening, he kept writing.

Banished alongside the image of his son with a half-melted face and blank, staring eyes, was the voice. It lingered in the mind of every miner, probably even in Hennessy’s before he’d gone and sold his soul, the voice that whispered of better things.

They could strike. The mine was unsafe, anyone with the brains he was born with could see that. He banished the memory of the last time they had gone on strike. How they never found the body of Nickie Avery who had riled them up to it nor the sight of his family being loaded on a cart and trundling out of town, to a beggar’s life in the city. Banished too the tiny voice telling him to just knuckle under and hope.

A third voice did not vanish, though. A voice that was hungry and unsatisfied with the souls it had been fed. It guided the preacher’s hand as he wrote with the sun dipping steadily towards the horizon. That voice wanted a strike, it promised better things. A green world with food aplenty and kindness for the children. An easy thing to convince the miners to do, since that world is what every parent wanted.

Luckily no one was looking over the shoulder of the preacher as he wrote. Luckily no one could see maddening, writhing lines of letters that were not English forming words that could not be read. Even the preacher, if his mind had been completely his own could not read them.

But he would read them just the same. Just the same as every Sunday for the past four years, since the last preacher had coughed out the final bloody gasps that black lung had seen fit to grant him. He would read them, and the people would listen.

Listen and obey.

-0-

The service, would take place some time after supper most likely, reasoned Hennessy. The preacher was the kind of man who feared the wrath of God only slightly less than the strong arm of the company. So there was nothing to be concerned about there. Hennessy smiled and interlaced his fingers behind his head as he sat in the company chair, in his company house, in the company town.

Company oil burned in ludicrous amounts in company lamps around the room. It was brighter there than it was under the last rays of the setting sun. Hennessy could not abide the dark.

New workers would come in on the next train, driven up the mountain in company trucks to fill the void left by the newly dead. To live in the houses their families left behind. And here he was, atop them all, with never a thought of going deeper underground than he wanted to ever again. A little slight of hand when he had been young, a moment of loyalty to the company that set him apart and here he was, safe from the horrors of the pit.

Because horrors were down there. Black lung not included on the list, not being terrible enough to scar his dreams and soil his sheets. No. He shuddered to remember the faces, the faces of miners with skin and flesh half-melted off their skulls. They popped out of the rocks down there, empty eye sockets accusing. Men stood propped in shadows, their missing limbs calling his name and asking why he had done it. Boys vanished just as the mine carts passed, pipes in their mouths and blank terror in their eyes as they saw the blackness of the mountain close around them.

Just a little slight of hand. An acceptable loss to the company once he had bootstrapped himself into the shift-boss spot. Put the discontents in the wrong part of the right shaft and…

Only the daylight kept them back. Hennessy could not abide shadows. Shadows was where they waited for him. Hands reaching out, asking for help he could not, would not give them.

“Everyone needs to keep to himself and look out for his own,” he said to the empty corner of the room. One of them had stood there earlier, it must have been the father of that boy. The one they had not found save for the wreck of his helmet. A good helmet that, one of the newer steel models. A loss the company could well afford, but still something they would rather not have lost.

Standing from his chair, he thought about the bottle of shine in his cupboard. He had a drop from time to time. Did not like to overindulge, or indulge at all. Since his time as a boss started, they had come for him whenever he drank. Doctors were thrilled, his liver had never been healthier, but he missed the release. The escape from his own thoughts and the memories. Of course, the ghosts were just that, images his mind threw up in front of him because…

Naturally there was no reason. Things just happened sometimes. He just did not want to experience them, he did not want to be so harsh with the men and the boys who worked the mine but there was nothing else for it. He needed to be that way because…

A hymn drifted through his open window. They had started singing in the chapel. He had as much right to be there as anyone else, but he did not want to see the memorials. Did not want to look into the grieving faces that he knew all blamed him for this tragedy. It was not his fault. He knew the risks and so did they. They simply needed to do a better job of getting away from them.

He shivered and did not look at that shadowed corner next to his company bed. The one that could never be lit no matter how hard he tried. If he looked there, then he would see them. He would see the ghosts, staring at him with their empty black eyes and sallow suffocated skin. Eyes like the depths of the tunnels when the lights go out: empty, black, drawing him in.

Words, less words than feelings, drifted into his mind. They tickled him and drew his attention from brooding on the eyes of his ghosts to the task at hand. They guided him towards that miner’s family, he never bothered to learn their names, to the widow and the children. Families were a burden, but they could sometimes be valuable to him. The boy could work and they could stay forever, or… or there were other ways the mother could get him to lose their paperwork.

Spreading slowly across his lips, the smile was not quite his own. It belonged to the voice which had only just lent it to him.

-0-

She had watched as her husband’s empty box was laid to rest, and felt her heart break just a little bit more. He had been a good man, her Tim. A gentle and attentive husband, kind to their children, never drank too much except on special occasions, and then who didn’t? Hard to find one like him.

Now her boy would have to take his place. In many ways they were lucky he hadn’t had to before. Not many in the hills made it to eleven before their first paid trip underground. A voice whispered to her, whispered to provoke her hate. She did not understand it, did not know that it was speaking to her, but it spoke inside her head as she watched Hennessy walk up the short path to her front door the very morning after the service for the dead. The bastard.

Remembering the service was difficult. She knew she had been there, sang the songs and said the prayers. Right? She must have done, since there was nothing else to do. The unknown voice agreed, that was what she had done. Worshiped and asked for mercy and forgiveness. No reason to think more about it. Not when Hennessy was coming here, that stupid smile on his lips, ready to take her boy away from her. Send him down into the dark.

“Morning, Angeline,” he said, a smile slick as coal oil on his lips. “Got something important to talk to you about.”

The boy, bless him, was ready. He had known it was coming, and he was his father’s son after all. He agreed almost before Hennessy had even finished his little speech about the importance of responsibility and how, don’t you know, this house and almost everything in it is company property considering the debts. It was such a shame, he said, that young men have to grow up so damn fast isn’t it. But of course, there were other arrangements that could be made… if they needed some time.

Angeline did not miss the implication. Nor did she miss the way that Hennessy’s eyes had strayed, for more than a moment to her more feminine features. She had known what kind of man he was the very first time she had seen him and by God (and the voice) she was right. Well, she was nothing if not a mountain woman, born and bred in some of the harshest ways a person could grow up. She’d make him fight for it if that was so damn important to him.

She dressed her boy for his first day. His eyes, beautiful and blue as forget-me-nots just like his father’s, were downcast and dark. He knew that people died in the mines, and that boys especially were given hard and dangerous labour. They can get into and out of spaces full-grown men could not.

But he was too young she thought. Far too young. Even now, dressed and ready, a new company hard hat with a wax drawing of a pink rabbit on it for luck, he looked older. Weary and wary, his beautiful eyes harder than they had been just the day before. It widened the split in her heart, painfully cracking deep into her soul.

The voice was there, too. Filling that crack. It soothed her, it took away her fears and her anxieties. Helped her to send her son away, into the waiting dark.

-0-

Striking is a dangerous business. Workers died doing it all the time. Some of them would die underground, finding something the inexperienced scabs had left half-done. Others could go down if they tried to cross the line, torn apart by their frenzied former friends. Some men might die in a clash, pushing up against the company goons brought in to put them down. The scabs would die too, higher rates of them than anyone else. But then, they were only scabs.

Two weeks after the explosion that had taken the boy’s daddy, he was standing out with the others chanting right alongside them. Demanding better treatment and better pay. Bossman Hennessy knew better than to stick his ugly nose into things. He knew where the real gaps in the fence were so he was able to sit himself nice and comfy behind his desk and wait them out.

Eventually, everyone knew, the miners would either run out of money or else the company would lose patience. The men would be back underground and the scabs sent back where they belonged. A part of the cycle just as much as miners dying or coal being shipped out. Or at least it was supposed to be.

Standing at the fore, leading the men through a song, the preacher waited for the divine words to flow. “You load sixteen tons, what do you get,” he called and the response came, “another day older and deeper in debt.” He called again, “oh Saint Peter don’t call me because I can’t go,” and again the response, “I owe my soul to the company store.” Behind each word was a mind to which the voice whispered. It taunted those who could be taunted, teased the rest, and tempted them all.

Each call and response just as sacred to the men as those said in the pews at mass. Each verse shouted with the same fervor that they reserved for their worship. It was worship, in a sense, the voice knew that. The voice of the deep darkness, of Old Man Coal and Lady Appalachia. A voice older than old, heard in the times before awareness of time.

And it grew stronger as every soul was sacrificed to it in exchange for their sixteen tons. Deeper in debt indeed, but none of them understood just how deep they were. Or worse, in debt to whom.

On the fifth day of the strike, after one of the scabs foolishly went into town looking for a drink and was sent to the clinic for his trouble, a bell started to ring. Deep underground at first, deep in the fresh dark left behind as a lamp went out the bell rang. It traveled up the mine, out into the bright sunlight, a screaming whistle drew everyone’s attention. Then miners started running.

Scabs and union men forgot their differences. There was fire down the mine.

The boy ran with the rest, ran through the gate and into the yard, only stopping to grab his helmet. That little good luck charm from his sister had a lot of faith in it. But faith alone ain’t worth spit underground.

“Fire,” screamed the preacher as smoke started to billow from the shaft.

“Get it under control,” shouted Hennessy from a safe distance.

Water and blankets, brand new respirators fresh from army surplus were rushed on and into the mine. Men were being hauled out, many already burned, others just bolting, their instincts screaming at them to get away louder than the voice telling them to stay and fight the flames. Hennessy grabbed them, thinking that he was doing his duty in pushing them to do theirs. Listening to the lies that he was hearing from the voice, louder than even the shrilling shrieking of the bell over the commotion.

The preacher led the way. Old Bob followed, telling the boys that this was men’s work and they were to stay up top, help where they could. Chaos gave way to organized panic as they fought to save the mine. The air wasn’t venting right, it was building up, ready to burst.

Men scrabbled to fix the tarps and blankets that kept things flowing properly.

They were too slow.

Bossman Hennessy gathered all the boys around him and sent them into the mine, that voice still in his head, pushing him on. “Old Bob said,” started one of the boys but Hennessy cut him off with a glare, threatening to fire him for abandonment and evict his family right there.

Mountain boys are tough, they know their duty and they follow it. They trooped into the mine, with the boy casting one final look at Bossman Hennessy before turning a corner into the abyss.

-0-

Albert Hennessy survived what happened next. More than one hundred miners didn’t. And not one of the boys he sent in to do their duty to the company and their families came out. Some bodies were found, but not enough. Not nearly enough. The men, boys, union and scab, who had gone down there simply vanished. Disappeared.

Consumed by the dark.

In his dreams, he could still hear the voice egging him on. He recognized it now, recognized when it spoke to him and what it told him to do. He felt its laugh in his teeth when he sobbed, because after that day – shuffled off to another mine thanks to his sterling record before the disaster that closed the one he had lost – Bossman Hennessy learned to cry. But weeping did no good.

They were still there, propped up in doorways or shadowed corners. Begging him to save them, to help their families. The voice told him it could set him free so he did what it wanted. He fed more people to the mountain, sent them into the mouth of Old Man Coal and the waiting arms of Lady Appalachia for the promise that they would set him free.

But the ghosts only grew.

Somewhere along the line, they learned to speak. Even drink could not set him free, when he drank he could feel their cold fingers clawing at his clothes. He could sense the oblivion of sleep, but that was the way they were pulling. Trying to drag him down… down into the suffocating dark.

And beside his bed when he woke, no matter where he was nor how bright the room, was a boy. A boy with the flesh melted like candle wax off half of his face, and an eyeless socket black as the new dark of a tunnel. The boy held a lantern and would smile at him, saying, “I’ll find you, Hennessy. One day, you’ll be back underground where you belong. And I’ll be waiting.”

It was Angeline’s son he saw. The last boy he had sent to his death on that fateful day. Waiting for him in the dark. Promising that as soon as he was there, alone down deep where the air is never fresh and with the crushing weight of the mountain over his head, that lantern would light. And the world would burn around him.

supernatural
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About the Creator

Alexander McEvoy

Writing has been a hobby of mine for years, so I'm just thrilled to be here! As for me, I love writing, dogs, and travel (only 1 continent left! Australia-.-)

I hope you enjoy what you read and I can't wait to see your creations :)

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  2. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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Comments (4)

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  • Donna Fox (HKB)4 months ago

    Alex... this was certainly not what I was expecting. I knew we were going dark/ horror but wow... kind of at a loss for words. This was breathtaking, I felt my world still as I read this dark tale! Great work!

  • Mackenzie Davis4 months ago

    Very much not the kind of horror I was expecting from you. You keep surprising me! I like the way you made "the voice" take over for God, the kind of spirit of greed that Hennessy was a victim to, the idolatrous sacrifice of the mountains. Seeing it deceive the pastor, take over the worship, soothe yet cause terror was all so intense, like a gut punch. This one is super well-crafted, in a more poetic way than some of the others I've read. Definitely one of my favorites. A lot more serious, more metaphorical in its horror aspects, and very emotionally rough. I almost want this to be revised for MORE explicit scenes of the explosions, the injuries, and all the sensory details. It's quite matter-of-fact, which still works well, but I was craving more immersion. Not a bad critique, let me clarify; just a personal opinion as a reader. I really like this one. It ought to be a short film, really.

  • Rob Angeli8 months ago

    That was intense. At least he will be tormented forever. You're very versatile in your ability to paint so many vastly different settings and characters, from historical to futuristic, etc! This is a very enveloping narrative of misery, brilliantly done in every way. Really moved me.

  • L.C. Schäfer12 months ago

    Kept me hooked to the last line!

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