The hilt of the knife was slick in Sarah’s sweaty palm, and the lantern rattled softly in her other, trembling hand. The sound of it was swallowed by the trees, crowding over her, as though they were waiting for her to do something.
It wasn’t quite dusk, yet this deep in the woods the darkness was rising from the forest floor, swallowing her pale white light. Her knees ground into the damp foliage and scattered sticks beside the hole that was too small to have swallowed Jeremy. But it had. No matter what any of those stupid grown-ups said, he hadn’t run away.
She dropped a rock into the hole. Maybe not the best thing to do with something that had eaten a person, but what else should she have done? As she dropped it, everything went quiet in the forest, like a switch had been flipped to off. No birds calling their end of day songs, or the critters that were snuffling and running around nearby.
The rock never touched the bottom. At least not that she could hear. The air was heavy with the scents of rotting, Autumn vegetation, and folded around her like a wet blanket. Her heart tripped along at the continued silence, and she held her breath.
Then, something rumbled from deep below her. She gasped, and went to to stand and flee, but the shaking of the earth made her fall on her butt. As she fell, the knife flew from her hands into the foliage of nearby ferns, and the lantern fell to the ground, the plastic cracking on a rock. Then the tremors stopped, as her blood thundered in her ears, and her breathing was a ragged pant.
Maybe it was nothing, she thought, as the forest slowly resumed its usual chatter around her. There are mines everywhere around here. Maybe one of them collapsed.
Maybe I imagined the hand.
It had been blue, like a person caught in a blizzard and frozen to death, with blackened, broken nails. But she’d been so shocked when Jeremy…fell? Perhaps that was it. He’d fallen in, and now he was passed out at the bottom of a forgotten mine shaft, dying, because she was scared of an imaginary hand.
She crawled forward toward the hole. They’d been silly to come here, chasing ghost stories of miners trapped in the shaft during a freak blizzard. Her parents had been furious that she’d come here, after being told her entire life to avoid the area. It wasn’t safe. She thought her father’s head would explode when he found out she’d been out here with her boyfriend–someone her father strongly disapproved of.
“J-Jeremy?” she whispered, cringing back quickly as the name tumbled from her lips, ready to be dragged down, too.
“Ssssaaaraaah…” The voice was faraway, but definitely coming from the hole.
She gasped. “Jeremy!” She scrambled forward, unafraid now that her worst fears–yet greatest hope–had been confirmed. “Are you okay? I’m going to go get help!”
Then the same blue hand shot from the hole and grabbed her wrist. Except this one had the same freckle on the first knuckle of its thumb that Jeremy did. She tried to wrench her hand from its grasp, or reach for the knife to stab at it, but the weapon was too far away. She was reaching for the lantern to bash the thing, when a face floated up from the darkness, freezing her in mid-motion.
“That won’t be necessary. I missed you so much, Sarah,” he said, his voice raspy as dead leaves scratching across the pavement. “Now we can be together…forever.”
She screamed as he dragged her down, just as he’d been dragged down. No one heard her, though, as the forest muffled the sound as surely as a murderer suffocating someone with a pillow. Not long after, the forest went about it’s usual business of life, but the creatures had long ago learned to avoid the business of the dead. Something the humans never seemed to figure out. Jeremy and Sarah weren’t the first, and they wouldn’t be the last.