My usual smoke spot was off the Northeastern trail, next to a little creek where I could watch the fish as I got high. The trail itself was boring and flat, and the views were unimpressive even though it was dubbed the “Lake Loop”. People rarely took the Northeastern trail so I was used to having it all to myself.
But that day I decided to take the Western trail. I shouldn’t have done that.
My name’s Kevin. I work at PepBoys, still live at home, and I get stoned after work everyday. Pretty sure my mom knows I do, but I like to hit the Chicago parks to smoke, anyway. You know, out in nature.
The day I took the Western trail had been a rough one. I’d forgotten to tighten a radiator cap and a lady came back with a smoking engine. My boss yelled at me in front of everyone, in- cluding the customer, which was fucking embarrassing. Because I can’t quit this job. I need this job.
I decided to spend some extra time with my bowl that day. I parked in my usual spot next to the bathrooms and walked toward the Northeastern trailhead. Used to the solitude, I legiti- mately jumped when I heard a screech and then a shout behind me. I turned just in time to avoid a toddler who was being chased by an overwrought man in his 30’s.
“Slow down, Jayden! Wait for your mother and your sisters!”
A shrill cry pulled my attention to a belabored woman slamming the trunk of a Mazda nearby. Two crying girls were pulling at her arms.
“No, don’t make me, there’s spiders!”
“There’s spiders in the backyard too, Ava.”
“Monkeys! Monkeys!” The little boy shouted as he was scooped up in his father’s arms. “No monkeys here, buddy.”
“Monkeys!” The kid screamed so loud I think I went deaf for a moment.
So, the Western trail it was.
I hadn’t walked it often, preferring the even, easy path of the Lake Loop. The Western wound up into the hills which meant more cardio and less relaxation. Still, it was better than the other option… I pivoted, smiled, and sent the woman a little two fingered salute before making my way over to the entrance of the Western trail.
I walked for about twenty minutes – all uphill – before I split off from the trail on what looked like a well-used deer path. It was another ten before I found a good spot. It was just a little clearing with a fallen tree and a good view of the park. I pulled out my bowl, packed it, and flipped open my zippo. Inhaling the Northern Lights, I let it all melt away. My boss, my shitty car, my base- ment “apartment”, and even those kids from the parking lot. It all floated away from me like the smoke on the breeze.
It was a gorgeous day for this early in the spring and I stayed for maybe half an hour to take it all in. Eventually, though, I packed it up. The sun was getting close to the horizon and it was a couple miles back to my car, all downhill or not. I stood up and stretched, liking this smoke spot but perhaps not as much as my usual where I could watch the fish.
It was pretty, though, so I decided to take a few pictures before I left. The trees, the sky, the fallen log. They made good pictures. And if I had left after taking them, none of it ever would have happened. I would have driven home and gone to bed. I would still have my crappy job. I would still drive my shitty car. I would still watch the fish when I got high.
Unfortunately, though, my eyes caught the way the sinking sunlight was filtering gold through some trees down the hillside. It looked incredible. And I had to take a picture of that, too.
So I walked over toward the edge. The ground was covered in undergrowth and moss…there was no way to see it. Until I felt it. On the fifth step my foot went down, as normal, but then it kept going. Sinking. And when I stumbled, my other foot caught up to the stuck one, and it sunk into the ground, too.
I fell forward and caught myself on my hands, phone flying into the underbrush. The jarring on my body sent my legs even deeper into the ground. Up to my knees.
I wasn’t sinking, not exactly. No…it was a hole. A deep hole. And I was stuck halfway in it.
I twisted to pull my legs out but that only made me sink deeper. So deep, I was up to my waist. The hole was tight, pinching around my hips in a punishing grip.
I kicked my legs against the sides of the hole, trying to get enough purchase to leverage myself out. My feet scraped the dirt walls but found nothing to push against. I couldn’t lift my knees. I braced my hands against the ground and pushed as hard as I could trying to lift myself out. I gained an inch but when I relaxed my arms to try again, I sunk deeper into the hole.
The ground gripped my body so tightly that I finally started to panic. I was now sunken into the hole up to my armpits. Only my shoulders, arms, and head remained above ground. The dirt was like a vice around me. My chest was so constricted, I couldn’t even get a full breath into my lungs.
I reached for the grass and pulled. The stalks broke in my hands. I took bigger handfuls of it. I felt the dirt around my chest shift. Jesus Christ, it was working. I let go intending to put my hands flat on the ground and push. Before I could even blink my body fell further down the hole. All the way down…
I was now in the dark. I couldn’t see. My arms were above my head, shoulders folded in at an unnatural angle.
I was completely enveloped in the hole. No one would be able to see me from the surface.
It was hardly big enough for my body. I couldn’t lift my knee, not even half an inch. My head was stuck between my chest and shoulders in such a way that I couldn’t even look up toward the sky. And I still couldn’t breathe all the way in.
So I panicked.
“Help!” I yelled down into my chest, voice cracking. I tried to take another breath, one deep enough to really scream. But I could only take half breaths. I slipped down a little more and the hole felt even smaller. But still I was slipping, being crushed in from the sides as the hole ta- pered more and more. I yelled again, as loud as I could. “Help me! Please! Help!”
I kicked my feet against the walls. They scraped against them. More dirt. I fell a little more. I started to have trouble breathing. I was encased in a tube of rock almost twenty feet under- ground at this point.
What if this hole went on forever? What if I died in here. I started to hyperventilate. There was no room to move at all now. I nodded my head back and forth between the wall and my shoul- ders which were behind my head. If I pushed, really pushed, possibly tore a muscle, I could look up and scream in the direction of the surface.
I could feel the muscles stretching and aching behind my shoulder blades as tipped my head back. I could feel them pulling, tearing, but still I continued. I felt the wall hit the back of my head and I blinked away the pain in my shoulders. Looking up…I saw light. But it was far away. I had fallen much further down the hole then I’d thought.
There wasn’t even room for me to sob. There wasn’t enough air to breathe. My ribs were pinched. My vision was clouding. I wasn’t getting enough oxygen and my lungs started to burn.
I licked my lips and inhaled again, the millimeter or so that I could. My scream came out as a squeak but at least in the right direction: up. “Somebody help me please!”
The please was barely out of my mouth before I was falling again. I went down another ten feet or so before the walls suddenly open up. I crashed hard into solid ground and cried out as I hit the side of my hip. I lay for a couple of minutes in the dark, catching my breath now that I could actually breath again. I rolled onto my back and looked up.
The surface was only a pinpoint of light now. It was very, very far away.
“Fuck. Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck.” I started to shake. I had no idea what the fuck I was going to do. Where I was. Or how to get out. I reached over and massaged my hip, which pulled on my shoulder and the torn muscles there. If I had to guess, I would say my hip was bruised but not broken. What was broken, however was my bowl. I pulled the broken pieces out of my pocket and threw them into the darkness. They hit a wall nearby.
I pulled out my zippo. It took me two tries to light it because my hands were shaking. But when I finally did, I was able to get a lock at the chamber I had fallen into.
It was small, maybe 6 feet by 8 feet; the walls, floor, and ceiling made of dirt. It wasn’t a natu- rally occurring formation in the ground. I knew that because there were strange scratch marks in the corners and no rock in the chamber, only carved-out dirt. Something had made this.
And then there was the nest in the corner.
It was also made of dirt, loosely packed and high on the sides. There were patches of fur from various animals littered around the nest and next to it, another hole. This one was slightly big- ger than the hole I had just fallen through and it led down at an angle, not a vertical drop like the one in the ceiling.
I looked back up at the hole I’d fallen through. The light from outside was now purple – dusk. “Help!” I screamed. “Help me!”
I sat there yelling up at the hole until the light went from purple to gray to nonexistent. I yelled over and over. I yelled until I was hoarse. “Somebody fucking help me!”
Eventually I was silent, hours later, just lying on my back looking up at the ceiling. I used the zippo on and off. I tried to conserve the fuel, only using it when the darkness pressed in too much. In the deep of night I drifted off for a moment and when I awoke the light from the hole seemed to be turning gray again. That meant day. Day meant people. I watched as the gray warmed to a pink color.
I decided to try and collect pieces of my bowl and smoke out of it just to keep the worst of the panic at bay. I was on my hands and knees feeling around for the bowl when I heard it. The scratching. Something was moving. Something was coming through the hole in the wall next to the nest. It scratched as it scurried – and then it trilled.
I didn’t move. Chances are whatever the animal was, it could see me in the dark, but who knew? I remained stretched, reaching out toward the glass, my shoulders burning. The thing scratched along the wall toward its nest. I remained still. And then I heard a piece of glass go spinning.
The thing made a shrill shriek, not unlike the kids from the parking lot. It was angry, I think. The thing kept shrieking, the sound ear-piercing. Suddenly I heard it run across the room, scamper up the wall, and then it was walking across the ceiling somehow.
It trilled again. The sound right over my head. But still I didn’t move. I just raised my eyes to the ceiling, bracing for it. The light from the hole was brighter. Day was here. I could see the animal, but just barely.
It was larger than I expected. The hole it had come through was very small so it must be able to warp its body to fit through tight spaces. The shadow on the ceiling above me was maybe the size of a large boar, but had long arms and legs like a primate. It didn’t look like it had hair, or a tail, but the features were impossible to make out.
I could tell that it was looking at me. Before my eyes could adjust further, the animal suddenly shrieked in my face. I fell back, scuttling toward the wall. The light from the ceiling disappeared and I realized that the creature was in the hole.
I pressed my hands against my mouth and bit down on my palm. Don’t fucking scream. I had never seen an animal like that. Ever.
After a few minutes I noticed the light had returned. Either the thing was on the surface…or it had come back down into the room with me.
My eyes adjusted to the light again and I looked around. Nothing.
I crawled to the center of the room and looked up, screaming. For help, for rescue. For some- one to know I was down there. I screamed until I lost my voice. But no one screamed back.
Eventually I picked up all the pieces of my bowl. I tried to smoke it and when that didn’t work, I ate the weed. I was thirsty, hungry, and terrified. And I was alone.
By now I had been a no show at work and my friends were probably calling me. My phone was on still on the surface, but I hoped someone would be able to track it. The cops or the FBI or something. My mom wouldn’t worry start to worry for another few days.
As the light in the hole again cooled to gray, I started to accept what few options I had. I could stay in this cavern and scream upwards for help until I died of dehydration. Or I could go through the hole. Not the one I had come down. There was no way to reach it. The other hole. The one next to the nest that led even deeper underground ground. Maybe there would be a way out on the other side. But maybe there wouldn’t be.
I made my decision not a split second after I heard the scratching coming down the hole above me. I had to get out of this room before it came back down the hole. I didn’t know if my body would even fit through the other tunnel but I was a skinny guy. And it was my only option.
I flicked open the zippo, lit it and crawled toward the hole. My arms went first and then I shim- mied my shoulders through, the thickest part of my body. I pulled my chest and hips through next. It was a little bigger than I thought with rock on all sides. Likely naturally forming.
I pulled myself through the tight little tunnel inch by inch. In the places where I had enough room to lift my head, I saw the black walls of the tunnel reflected in the flicker of flame. And the endless darkness ahead of me, never-ending. In some places the tunnel got tighter, or opened up a little. But there was nothing else to see.
I could hear the creature in the room behind me, scratching at its nest. I mouthed the same words over and over again: please don’t let it come down the tunnel. I kept crawling.
I felt my hair flick back from my forehead and a cool breeze on my face. I stopped crawling and in that instant the flame went out on the zippo. The scratching was farther behind me now, way back in the nesting chamber. It wasn’t coming. As my eyes adjusted t the darkness, I noticed thin daylight coming from my right. As quietly as I could I relit the zippo to see where the breeze – and the light – was coming from.
It was another tunnel, one that bisected the one I was in. I shoved the zippo into that tunnel and my heart dropped. There was a muted gray light somewhere at the end of it but it was too narrow for me to crawl through. I had never felt more like crying. The tunnel wasn’t a viable op- tion. So I kept going.
It was an hour. Maybe more. I eventually had to put the zippo away because I was worried about using up all the fuel. The darkness was blinding. Thick. It felt like a blanket, but not one that comforted you. One the smothered you.
And then the worst happened. I pulled my chest through a narrow section of the cave tunnel, assuming it was like all the others and would open back up immediately. When it didn’t, I couldn’t even reach my zippo to see what I was dealing with. My hips were stuck between the rock walls. Even though I could leverage my knees against the side of the cave and pull back, my body wouldn’t budge. I was stuck.
I could feel the panic washing over me. It was dark. Cold. I was pinned in a tunnel, a hundred feet underground. I was alone and it was still. Silent. Until it wasn’t.
I heard the thing in the tunnel somewhere far behind me. I had to move. Even if I had to break my bones, I had to move. And so I did. I struggled and pushed and pulled. I grunted and
screamed in pain when I felt muscle tear or bone flex unnaturally. There was no point in trying to hide my position from the animal. It was coming either way.
And finally, finally – for no reason I could figure out – my hips were suddenly through. I yelped in relief, completely numb to the pain and crawled forward quickly. Right over the lip of the tunnel and onto a floor a few feet down. It was another room.
Ignoring my body aches, I grabbed for the zippo in my pocket and flicked it open. This room wasn’t much bigger than the last. There was no nest or hole in the ceiling. There were some stalagmites.
But those were tertiary facts that I didn’t notice right away. The first thing I saw were the bones. Most were small, likely from rats or prairie dogs. Squirrels. The biggest skeleton I saw was maybe raccoon-sized.
I kicked a few bones out of the way and spun back around toward the hole. The thing was still coming. I held the zippo up and waited, but the tunnel had gone silent. The creature didn’t emerge.
When I felt confident it wasn’t coming, I started to catalogue the room more thoroughly. No nest in this chamber, just bones and some sticks from outside. There was another hole in the chamber, this too high up on the wall for me to reach. And even if I could, I could tell already it was too small to get my shoulders through. I was trapped in here.
I fell back against the wall and slid down it, setting the lighter on the floor in front of me. I dropped my head into my hands and began to cry. I was thirsty and hungry and fucking tired. And it was becoming more and more obvious that I was going to die down here.
I don’t know how long I sat against the wall crying. I only know that I was still sobbing when I heard the thing in the room with me.
I jerked my head up and stared. The light from the zippo didn’t stretch into the corners and that’s where the thing was sitting. I couldn’t tell its shape any better from here, but its eyes were like twin beacons of green reflected back at me in the light of the flame.
It moved its head side to side. Then up and down. It was watching me. Curious about me. Probably wondering what I was and what I was doing in its lair, so far underground.
“I’m not here to hurt you, buddy.” My voice sounded strange after using it only to scream for the last two days. “My name’s Kevin. I’m nice. I won’t eat you, you don’t eat me. Cool?”
It continued to watch me. I leaned forward and pinched the lighter between my fingers, push- ing it forward to get a better look. I wanted to know what sort of animal I was dealing with. The thing kept watching me. With the added light I was able to barely make out that the creature wasn’t standing. It was sitting. And it looked bigger than when I’d see it on the ceiling.
I swallowed. “Do you know how to get out of here?” I moved the lighter further away from me and my hand bumped into some of the bones on the floor.
The thing shrieked. Shrill and high and terrible. It echoed around the room and I slammed my hands over my ears. The zippo tipped over and went out. I reached for it, scrambling to find it
amongst the bones. I could hear the creature on the ceiling again. It was above me, still shriek- ing. It made its way overhead, toward the other hole. It continued to shriek as it disappeared down the new tunnel. How it fit, I could only guess.
My fingers touched cold metal and I snatched up the lighter and lit it. The chamber was empty. I stood up and walked back over to the tunnel I had come out of. My skin was scraped to shit, raw and bleeding in many places. My ribs were bruised, maybe even broken. Breathing was hard. I could only risk going back into the tunnel if I had no other option. And it looked like that was going to be the case.
I walked around the new room, kicking the bones on the floor. I’m not sure what I was looking for. Something sharp, a weapon perhaps. There was nothing but small, sharp bones. One of them would have to do if I couldn’t find something bigger. I walked around one of the large sta- lagmites in the room. There were almost no bones on the other side, the area clear. Intrigued, I stepped closer – and immediately realized my mistake.
In an instant my body was again encased in a hole up to my ribcage. This time my arms were pinned to my sides. I let out a sob of despair and then only my eyes remained level with the edge of the hole. I screamed in frustration and fucking panic.
This hole was wider than the one on the surface. I was able to kick and thrash my lower body. I sunk further in, the edge of the hole now a few feet above my head, arms still pinned down. I continued to flail, angry, desperate. Scared. And suddenly I was in freefall again, but it lasted forever. I fell deeper and deeper, struggling to catch myself against the walls of the hole but the dirt just came loose and rained around me.
And then there was no more hole and I was falling into a big room. Falling, falling, so far I won- dered if I would survive it. The first thing to hit was my right leg. The bone shot right through the skin of my shin, shredding it. The rest of my body, surprisingly, hit cold water. I was under for a moment. Not sure which way was up or if I cared. Drowning wouldn’t be the worst of my options at this point.
I broke the surface and screamed at the pain in my leg. I was standing in chest high water and holding onto the rock at the edge of an underground stream. I could feel the water moving around me but I couldn’t even tell in which direction. The lighter was gone. It was pitch black. I would never see anything ever again. No Mom, no shitty car. No friends. Not even light. Just this sprawling blackness that sunk into your skin and invaded all the empty places in your body down to the bone.
I shivered in the freezing water, runoff from somewhere. Remembering how thirsty I was, I low- ered my mouth to the surface of the stream and drank giant throat-fulls of water until I vomited it up, and then drank the somehow-dirt-dry-tasting water again.
As my thirst waned and the shock receded, I began to feel pain again. My leg was fucked. The only way I was ever getting out of here was by crawling.
Shit. The stream! The water had to be coming from the surface. Clinging to the rocky walls I pulled myself against the current until I found the source of the water. It was a wall and the stream was coming from underneath it. I reached under it with my arm and then my foot but I couldn’t feel another air pocket. There could be one. Maybe 6 feet upstream. Maybe 30 feet. Maybe miles.
I was running out of the energy to scream or kick or otherwise express my frustration. So in- stead I simply tipped back and let the current pull me away from the wall. The creature wasn’t here, even though I had fallen down one of its holes. It was just me and the water and the darkness and whatever air this chamber had left to give me.
As I let the current pull me along I began to hear a new sound – the sound of falling water. Fall- ing water that was coming up quickly.
I reached for the wall, but the rock was smooth. I couldn’t find purchase. I began to panic. The sound got louder. And then my legs were suddenly sucked under another rock wall along with the water. I braced myself against the wall as the current tried desperately to pull me under the wall and down the waterfall I could hear on the other side. It was certain death. I could hear how far the water was falling. I could hear the drop. And even if the fall miraculously didn’t kill me, I would end up even further underground.
No, I would hold myself against this wall until my arms gave out. My shoulders were already protesting. The water’s drag on my open fracture was excruciating. But still I held on. I wouldn’t die like this. I wouldn’t.
Minutes, maybe hours. I stayed pinned to that wall, body screaming. It hurt. And the fall start- ed to sound not so bad. Maybe enticing. A quick death. The water would carry my body. Maybe eventually find its way above ground. Maybe people would know what happened to me. I didn’t want to die here, in this cave. I didn’t want it to be my tomb. I wanted to know my body saw daylight again.
I don’t know how long I was there considering the fall. And I don’t know when I first noticed it. It tickled my peripheral at first. Teased my brain. Just a whisper of it. Hope.
It started with definition in the rock wall. Then I could see the wisps of wet hair in my eyes. The shape of the water as it split around a rock several feet away. Light. There was light in this cav- ern. It must have been night when I’d fallen here. Day had brought the light.
The second I was sure it wasn’t some sort of illusion I pushed against the wall, using reserves of strength I didn’t know I had to twist a little. The light was there. Coming from a tunnel, a hole I could reach. A hole I could fit through. If I could get out of the stream without being sucked under the wall, I could climb out. I could get to that hole. I could see the surface again.
It took almost everything. I was exhausted. I didn’t have much left. But with the addition of light, I could now see the edges of the stream. I could see a place to climb out. I could see a small stalagmite to my left that I could use as a handhold. A way to pull myself toward the low edge.
Saying a prayer up to a God I didn’t much believe in, I turned away from the wall and pushed off, knowing that if I missed that little stalagmite I would surely be sucked underneath the wall and flung off the waterfall on the other side. I felt my hand close around it and I kicked with my one good leg, until I could get my other hand around it, and then my arms. I stayed there, clinging to that rock while the water raged around me, trying to tear me away. Muscle exhaus- tion was returning. My body was shutting down. I had stopped shivering. I need to get out.
I turned and kicked off the rock. The edge wasn’t far and pulling myself out of the water was easier than I thought. The rock was smooth and slippery. Once I was out of the stream, I again lay catching my breath, resting my body. I was hungry. And so tired. My eyes drifted closed. And stayed that way.
It should have been the cold or the pain, but it was actually a sound that woke me up. The screech of a bird, maybe. I turned my head. The light from the tunnel was softer now. Perhaps late afternoon. I had slept all day. I tested my body and found that very little strength had re- turned from my rest.
I rolled onto my stomach and dragged myself off the rock and into the dirt. Inch my inch I made my way to the hole in the wall. The tunnel to the surface. If it was a bird I had heard, the tunnel couldn’t be that long. And if it wasn’t the bird, it was the thing from above. And it was in the room.
I got closer and closer to the hole.
Please be a bird. Please tell me it was a bird.
But as I reached the opening of the tunnel and looked through, I knew it wasn’t. The tunnel was too long to hear a bird from the surface. The creature was in here with me.
I pulled myself through the hole and into the tunnel. It was about the same length as the first one I had fallen through and had a steady incline. I knew I must be underneath the hill and the tunnel would spit me out at ground level. And if I could get out, I could live.
It was long, it was slow. I had to dig deep for the strength to crawl forward every time I pulled myself toward the light. So I didn’t immediately notice the creature was in the tunnel with me. I didn’t understand why it was following me. Curiosity? Boredom? Was it territorial? It only ate small animals and it hadn’t attacked me yet. I tried to concentrate on the light in front of me. Keep moving.
The creature kept its distance. It could have easily caught up to me, but it hung back. I didn’t care. I was now only several yards away from the opening. I could smell grass. I could hear the wind. I dragged myself faster. I was using my last stores of energy. I could see the end. I knew as soon as I pulled myself through the other side, my body would give up. Pass out. But I wouldn’t be underground anymore.
I was five feet from the hole. I could see trees. I heard the creature behind me scratching as it followed me. But I didn’t care.
Four feet. I reached out a hand. Some of the long stalks of grass were blowing inside the tunnel from the edge. I reached for one to help pull me along…but my shoulder caught.
It was exactly then that I realized something. I had been too focused on the light. The end of the tunnel. I hadn’t seen the tapered walls. The low ceiling at the end. My chest was lodged. One arm was pinned to my side, the other out in front of me reaching for the surface. I couldn’t squirm. I couldn’t roll. I couldn’t kick or push or pull. I had no more energy. I had no room. I was entombed in this tunnel. Able to see the world, reach for it, but never rejoin it.
I would never escape the underground.
I watched the long grass wisp back and forth at the opening. Watched the shadows linger. Watched the light dying. I whispered for help, that was all I had left. The stars came out. I could see those, too. I could see the world, just right there. But I could never be apart of it.
When the creature began to rip apart my jeans and then the flesh around my calves, I contin- ued to watch the night sky. While he ate my legs and then the meat around my hips, still I reached for the world.
And when I finally drifted into death to the tune of crickets singing; I thought, at least I had that. I would never get out of the ground. But I could see the stars.