by Robert Spalding
“Marco, can you hear me?”
Coughing the dust from his lungs, Marco tried to gather enough spit to wet his lips so he could make the sounds to cry out for help.
“Marco?” Jack’s voice was getting desperate. Any second now he’d leave to go get help and Marco would be left in the dark, surrounded by tons of unyielding rock.
“Just stay still, I’m going for help.”
“no.” Too late and too little. His voice barely a whisper in the creaking darkness.
Jack’s footsteps retreated down the tunnel, the shaft they had spent so long digging.
Marco could feely every pulse of his heart send a pain flowing through his right leg. It had to be broken; nothing could hurt this badly and not be broken.
With a hiss of breath he tried to pull his leg free of the rock that held it down. It moved, only a little, but enough that he had hope it would come loose. After all, what else was there to do? The roof fall had filled in his way out. Only a tiny crack let through a wisp of fresh air and the light from Jack’s forgotten lantern. Even with help, it was going to take his friends a long time to dig him out.
He braced his arms, large and powerful from days on the building site and nights in the gym, against the wall behind him and levered himself upwards. The rock shifted some more and he could twist his leg. Doing so sent a fresh pain shooting up it, but at least he could move it.
Again and again, uncaring of the pain and the time, Marco pushed and pulled at himself until finally his leg came free. He had only a moment of joy until there was another rumble like the one that had trapped him in the tunnel. This time he curled himself into a ball as the dirt rained down.
When all was quiet, he picked his head up to look around. He could see nothing. For one horrifying moment, Marco thought he had gone blind. Then the truth dawned, even more terrifying, he was completely enclosed. His crack to the outside world was gone.
He was utterly, utterly alone.
His breath was the loudest thing he had ever heard. It filled the tiny space around him. Ragged and desperate it made more noise than a hurricane. But when he held his breath, the silence was oppressive and sinister, just trying to burrow its way into his mind. He began to breathe again.
His fingernails must have come away at some point in the previous minutes work. He didn’t remember a pain of tearing them out, but then he could barely feel his fingers any more. He had scrabbled and clawed at the dirt around him, trying to make his dirt coffin just that much bigger. At first he had meant to dig his way back to the tunnel, but he quickly realised that he was all turned around. He no longer knew which way was out and which way was in, deeper into the earth. So he scrabbled and clawed and begged and screamed at the walls until his fingers lost all feeling and he knew that stopping was the better choice.
He cried like a child denied a treat. He wailed like a baby desperate for a nappy change. He screamed and felt his nose fill with snot. He begged with the universe, pleaded with God and made promises to himself. He wanted out; he wanted to not be alone. He wanted something to hold on to.
Marco didn’t know when the stone near him had begun glowing. The darkness simply stopped being so impenetrable and started to be a deep red.
Picking up the stone, he watched as the colour within it grew stronger with each passing minute, a pulse would pass through it and then it was brighter. He began to laugh. It started as relief but quickly shifted gears to become hysterical before calming down once more to genuine humour.
He had found another and now he was going to die.
Such a stupid thing to die for, a rock that glowed. But he had been searching for it ever since they had found the first one last week.
It was Jack who had spotted it first. They’d been sat on deck chairs in his back garden, watching the night sky and shooting the shit with a couple of beers in hand when his friend had pointed at the ground.
“What’s what?” Marco had replied automatically, but he’d already spotted what Jack had meant. The patch of earth that his dog Rusty had dug up a bone from earlier was glowing. The same red colour as the stone he now held in his hands.
Marco had reached in for it despite Jack’s numerous warnings that it had to be hot if it was glowing that colour. But Marco could feel the cool air around the hole. If the rock had been hot, he’d have known it by that point. It was smaller than a tennis ball, but a bit larger than a golf ball. Almost an ovoid with some jagged edges where time of sharp force has broken pieces off.
He pulled it out, cool to the touch and the colour was soothing. He stared into it, absorbed by the colour, the light that filled his vision. It was only when Jack roughly shook his shoulder that he snapped out of his reverie.
“You ok man?” Jack asked.
Marco felt the smile grow on his face “Better than ok. Take a look at this stone. Look at the colour, it’s really soothing.” He proffered the stone but Jack turned his head away.
“No chance. It took me five minutes to get your attention. You keep that away from me.”
Marco shrugged and put the stone in his pocket. Together they had gone back to the chairs and the cooler of beer between them.
After half an hour or so of quiet drinking and wonderment a thought came to Marco. It was so clear and so obviously true he didn’t know why it had taken so long.
“There are more down there.”
Jack coughed halfway through chugged a can and ended up spraying beer foam everywhere. “What did you say?”
Marco pointed to the hole “There are more of these down there. I know there are.”
Jack had snorted, but kept a wary eye on him for the rest of the night.
The next day Marco had begun working on Jack, getting him to help loot some supplies from the site where they worked.
“I’m not getting the sack because you want more glowing rocks.” Jack was not happy with the very suggestion.
“Think about it, just think.” Marco had been at his most charming. “Rocks that glow. Natural, no power source. Just think of the money we could make. Just think of the money.”
It had taken another ten minutes to fully convince his friend, mostly of describing the kinds of girls they could get, but Marco knew that with the talk of money Jack was already in.
They’d started that night after work, skipping the gym for more physical labour in his back garden.
The tunnel had started small, but as they found nothing and Marco insisted more strongly that something was there, they dug down.
Marco held the glowing stone to the roof of his little bubble. There was maybe seven feet of dirt between him and air. But not just dirt, hard layers and plenty of scattered rubble. Could he dig his way up?
The thought of going head first into the cloying darkness where he’d be unable to breathe was devastating. It was debilitating. The idea started him hyperventilating and he could only calm himself by staring at the stone.
The stone was a great source of calm to him, it was a shame he only had the one because Marco was quite certain that if he had another then he would be even calmer.
The idea that he needed a second stone to survive being buried came to him then, strong and undeniable. Just one more stone and he’d be fine.
He began to hunt around his little cave for any sign of another, using the one he already had as a torch. On his third circuit around the floor he noticed that the stone began to glow brighter in on particular spot. Not much, but noticeable if he took it away and then brought it back.
It had to be sensing another stone. It was showing him the way.
With a sense of hope in his heart, Marco tucked the stone into his jeans’ pocket and began to dig with his hands. Amazingly the earth here was soft, it was easily scooped out until he had the beginnings of a tunnel, well, more of a burrow. Without a thought for the fear that had gripped him so recently, Marco went headfirst into the hole and began to dig his way down.
How long or how far he went, Marco did not know. He didn’t care too much when he risked a glance behind and couldn’t tell if he could get back to his little enclosure. He didn’t care because there were stones back there, no calming influence. His way was forwards.
He kept his hands mostly as scoops now, not even bothering to separate his fingers as he pulled the dirt away from him. He was almost swimming through the dirt, down an old route, lightly filled to keep away the nosy, but not so much that those who knew of it could not find their way through.
Ever deeper he pulled himself into the dark, pausing only occasionally to hold his stone in his cupped hands and wonder at it.
When he finally saw the glow of the second stone Marco almost wept with joy. He fumbled the first stone from his pocket, hard to do because his fingers were now crusted together with dirt and other substances. Holding the stones together Marco marvelled at their identical colours. He felt such peace and such belonging was over him that he knew he needed more. Two stones were good, but he knew now that it would take at least three, maybe more, to keep him safe and alive.
The stones went into his pockets and he began his journey onwards again.
Time passed without his notice, there was nothing but the travel and the stones. Eventually his pockets were full and he started to keep them in his mouth. Pushing his cheeks out like a hamster to fit as many as he could in. The glow infused him from everywhere, it was in him and around him and it was good. He ate the glow, drank the glow, breathed the glow and swam in the glow. The glow was all and the glow was good.
When had he last drank or eaten? He didn’t know. Didn’t care. The light of the stones filled him and sustained him.
The stones had been appearing so fast and so often after the first few that when they stopped, he was confused. The glow was all he sought, but now there was no glow to find. The more he went down, the more he found nothing but dark.
Still he burrowed down, wriggling his whole body to increase his speed. Suddenly he came upon solid rock. Too hard for him to dig through. He twisted to the right and found only more of the hard. To the left as well. That left only back, back the way he had come. But that way there were no more stones, no more beautiful glow to sustain him. He couldn’t, he wouldn’t.
An old feeling came to him then, recognised but unnamed. A shaking in his stomach, a terrible desire to be elsewhere. It was a feeling he disliked so he spat out a stone to bask in its light and banish the feeling.
The stone was just a stone, it had no glow. He spat out another. Just another stone. Now panic engulfed him; that was the feeling, panic. He spat out stone after stone but none of them glowed. His once hands, now little more than flesh scoops dug desperately into pockets that now hung much looser along with the rest of his jeans. Handfuls of stones that did not glow spilled from them. He tried to cry but his throat would not make noise any longer.
In terror he slammed against the walls, finally realising that he was beyond lost, he was trapped deep beneath the earth and no-one knew where to find him.
He pawed at the walls, kicked with his skinny legs that had lost all of their muscle. He raged in the darkness at the folly of his obsession.
The thought came unbidden that if he had never seen the glowing stones, if he had never laid eyes upon them, then he would be safe and warm. He would be drinking with, with… The name of his friend was gone, and now he tried to bring it up, so was his own. No name, no hope. If only he hadn’t seen them, hadn’t let himself be tricked by their colours, he would be safe.
With a desperation that finally brought a ragged, inhuman scream from his throat, he dug his flesh scoop against the walls. Scraping and mashing until he had exposed the hard bone of what were once fingers. Then without hesitation he jammed the bones at his face, missing his eyes in the darkness at first and gouging deep wounds in one cheek and across his forehead.
Using the pain as a guide, he traced his bone knives down to his eyes and stuck them in, levering his betraying orbs out. He felt them dangle wetly on his cheeks until he could find the nerves that held them in place and cut them.
Two damp plops signalled his eyes were on the floor.
Satisfied, he curled up in a corner. His breath slowed until it stopped all together, having nothing to feed them, his lungs closed down. His heart and brain followed and the thing that had once been Marco died.
On the floor, among the stones, his eyes began to harden and glow with a deep red colour.
Robert Spalding has had a few short stories published by the now defunct fiction site Whispers of Wickedness. He has written comics for FutureQuake Press and been published 4 times by them.
Robert has a flash fiction story appearing in the forthcoming anthology Out of Place, Out of Time.