Description: Summer, 1934. Two boys, searching for a local legend, stumble upon the Underground, a network of uncharted caverns. Time holds no sway there; people no longer age and their wounds heal as if by magic. By morning, one boy is murdered, while the other never returns. Below a town ravaged by the Great Depression, an immortal society thrives, built on the backs of slavery and pervasive immorality.
Knowing he wouldn’t comprehend the weight of her words, Greta spoke to her son. ”Terrible things will happen to people I love.”
Kneeling near the kitchen table, Arlen worked a mound of clay against the wooden floor. Face taut with concentration, he rolled the gray slab into thin bands. He pulled off smaller pieces and worked these as well, setting aside finished pieces to a larger whole.
She wanted him to more than hear her voice; she wanted him to understand. She was desperate to share her burden. But it was her burden and hers alone to bear. Involving others would ruin any prospect of ending decades of pain and degradation of human life. If people had to die to reach this end, it had to play out through its natural course. Otherwise, nothing would change.
So she voiced her worries to the only person she could.
“Mama, we still gonna be together?” Arlen asked. He looked up from the floor where his claywork took shape. Seemingly disparate puzzle pieces, melding together to form a singular vision of something far more grand.
Her son was no longer a boy. He hadn’t been a boy in so long, yet he still had a child’s mind. His tangled beard was graying, his scraggly pate thinning. While he lived with childlike exuberance, time weighed on her heavily, slowing her movements and shrinking her bones. She was an old woman, near her end.
Innocence shined in Arlen’s eyes. He minded adults and would never purposely cause anyone grief. He had such a kind soul. Given the choice, she wouldn’t want him to change. She wouldn’t risk losing who he was for anything.
“We’ll always be together,” she answered him. ”I will always be in your heart.”
Placated by her words, his mind flitted to other matters. He picked up a small gray blob, rolled it in his palm. ”I miss picking with the others. I don’t mind my gopher hole, but it ain’t the same as the old mine.”
Arlen had worked for years as a pile sorter for the Grendal Coal Company. Picking coal was a job fit for a child, sitting atop a tipple pile all day, sorting valuable ore from waste rock. When the company left Summerset seven years ago, Arlen was twenty years older than the other pile sorters. They’d given him the job, aware he could never advance beyond it.
“You’re doing a good thing for your mom, digging that gopher hole.”
Arlen grinned. The best part of his smile was an aged, yellow ivory. The rest, empty gaps and decay.
It had been Arlen’s idea to open the gopher hole at their property’s edge overlooking Tipple Road. Townsfolk would stop off the main north-south road through Summerset, buying coal Arlen had dug from the shallow mine. High-grade ore ran in twisting veins just below the topsoil, all he had to do was scratch the surface. People would procure enough fuel to warm their homes, allowing Arlen to help support his mom. There were other places to buy fuel–stores and other gopher holes aplenty–but people went out of their way to buy from Arlen.
Arlen pieced together the finished pieces of clay, realizing the image from his muse.
She could tell his thoughts were skittering off to the starry skyscape of his mind. She continued: “Good people will suffer, oh God in heaven, will they suffer. If I walked the streets of Summerset, I could point to certain people, say, ‘You will be dead by the first frost.’”
Arlen looked up from his claywork, staring out the window as the moon rose above the trees, a beacon cutting softly through the nighttime sky.
“But it has to be. Has to be, or nothing will change.”
Arlen smiled. Her voice had always soothed him.
“Sometimes death leads to life. Sometimes there’s a greater good.” She thought back to the visit from the two boys earlier today. They’d come to her, as all the town’s children did at one point or another, to hear her stories. Looking those boys in the eye, she told her tales, setting them on the path to their end. ”Until the day I die, I will damn my ancestors for cursing me with this supposed gift.”
Arlen scooped up his artwork, offering it to her.
She held it in shaking hands. A gray flower more delicate than the clay of its origin. Finely articulated petals, a thin, twisting stem. Beauty rendered from a slab of shapeless gray earth.
She smiled and it was all the thanks Arlen needed, all the approval he so desperately sought. He looked away, staring once again at the rising moon.
No, she would never wish her son to be different, to be normal. To be whole. He was more than the sum of his parts, more than whole. And he was a better person than her. Better than those who came before her.
July 8, 1934
George Banyon climbed into bed, shucking the covers to the floor. He was exhausted from rising at dawn and hastily working through his chores around the farm, from meeting up with his friends later on, and as the sun set, attempting to impress Betty Harris by swinging from a tattered rope into the Illinois River’s shallow, murky water. Just one day in what seemed like an endless string, but regrettably, it would soon end. Soon he would have to behave like a man. After all, a month shy of seventeen, he would be graduating the following spring.
On the cusp of sleep moments after hitting the pillow, a tapping at the window nudged him fully awake.
Sitting up, sluggish sweat dripped from his sunburned skin. He looked across the darkened one-room farmhouse to Ellie’s bed. His younger sister hadn’t stirred. It amazed George that she could sleep so soundly with a blanket tucked over her shoulder. Their father, leaned back in his handmade rocker, had passed out hours ago. He wouldn’t stir, either. George would guarantee it. He could smell his old man’s booze-piss, his pants drenched.
George swung his legs to the floor and stood, hoping the floorboards wouldn’t reveal to Ellie his late night creeping. He knew who was tapping and so he took his time. Jimmy Fowler, his best friend since either boy could walk. Whenever anything caught Jimmy’s interest long enough that he couldn’t keep it to himself until morning, he would come tapping on George’s window. But right now, all George wanted was to stop sweating, and to fall into a deep and welcomed sleep. He went to the open window, not a hint of breeze to bring a moment’s relief, and saw Jimmy’s scruffy blond head. His blue eyes caught the moonlight, revealing his excitement. He gave it off like a pig’s stinking breath.
“Get your fishing tackle,” Jimmy whispered.
“Are you nuts? I got to get up at five a.m.”
“Forget your chores. Won’t matter after what we’re gonna do.”
“You’re still thinking about old Greta’s story?”
“I say we find out if it’s true or not. If it’s all made up, all that’s lost is some sleep, but if we do track down the beast…”
“Come on, Jimmy. I’m tired.”
“Just think what Betty Harris will think when we catch him.”
George’s heart fluttered. He tried not to show it. He’d had trouble speaking to Betty ever since the sixth grade when he discovered she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. But something had changed since school let out this summer. Her friends became friendly with his, mostly because Jimmy’s girl, Louise Bradshaw, was friends with Betty. It took him halfway through June to strike up the nerve to talk to her.
Feeling confident after surviving a lunatic’s dive into the shallow river, he walked to where she sat on a boulder overlooking the shore. Acting coy, the sun kissed her tan cheeks. She closed the sketchpad resting on her lap, but didn’t say a word, just gave him a bemused smirk. She was always drawing–he didn’t know what exactly–but he found her more appealing for it, more mysterious. She said hi in her soft melodic voice, which gave him the courage to drum up a conversation.
In the few weeks since their first real conversation, he’d been acting a fool, doing crazier and crazier stunts–acting more like Jimmy than himself–trying to keep her attention. ”You think Betty would be impressed?” he asked, remembering Jimmy standing outside his window.
“Sure she would. Maybe she’d even let you take her to see a movie.”
George immediately started planning a first date with Betty. Borrowing a car, getting gas to drive to Peoria, ticking off a list of stuff to talk about during the drive. George pushed it all aside, not wanting the dizzying possibility of being alone with Betty to muddle his thoughts.
He would sneak out with Jimmy; he knew it as soon as Jimmy mentioned her name. George sighed in defeat. ”Let me get my things.” He looked at Ellie to make sure she was still asleep.
Then, as quietly as possible, George gathered a lantern, his fishing pole and tackle, and a stale hunk of bread for bait. He lowered everything down through the window to Jimmy.
“You won’t regret this.”
“Yeah I will. Like a dog chasing its tail,” he said in a hushed voice. ”We’ll just spin ourselves dizzy with nothing to show for it. If we do catch it, I bet we’ll wish we hadn’t.” He looked in on his meager house. His little sister, who was for the most part more joy than trouble, and then his dad. He would be out for a good while yet and wouldn’t notice a thing. George’s stomach soured as he headed out the window.
Jimmy stopped him with a raised hand. ”I got an idea.”
“I hate when you say that.”
“How about we bring along your dad’s gun?”
“You really want me to get a whooping, don’t you?”
“I see him over there in his rocker. He won’t miss it a second.”
George was about to ask why he thought it necessary to haul around such a weapon on a late night fishing trip. But he already knew the answer.
“Shit.” His dad’s cherished over/under was a true killing machine, twin shotgun barrels mounted over a still-deadly .30 chamber. ”Fine. But he’ll notice it’s gone before he sees my bed’s empty.”
Hearing multiple meanings to his own words, he grabbed the gun from the rack on the nearby wall.
Of all their possessions, only the gun seemed to shine. Everything else was worn and tired. The years since The Crash had been rough on everyone, but around the Banyon place, it’d been a sorry sight long before ’29. Ever since their mom died giving birth to Ellie, and their father’s heavy drinking became commonplace. Yeah, things had been rough, much worse than he let on, even to his best friend, Jimmy Fowler. George held the gun protectively as he climbed out the window.
“Turn out your lantern,” Jimmy called out over his shoulder. They’d left the Banyon place behind, had left Summerset behind as well. They were cutting across the untended fields north of town, tromping through endless acres of knee-high witchgrass.
“Can’t see for shit,” George said, for some reason no louder than a whisper.
“Don’t you think I know that? When we get to the caves, we can’t exactly go after White Bane with our lantern all blazing. No way we’d catch him then. We gotta let our eyes adjust.” He used his fishing pole like a walking stick, occasionally pushing away the brush.
George couldn’t see his feet, let alone anything up ahead. Twisting the valve, the golden light seeped away to nothing. Greta Hildaberg said they’d find the cavern’s hidden entryway after passing the untended acreage a mile outside Summerset. Just over the last ripple of the last hillock, George could remember her saying. Before the land turned rocky and no longer tillable, through dense brambles and tangled cockleburs. They’d all heard about the caverns, all of Summerset’s children had at one point or another, and while they’d listen to Greta’s stories, most everyone thought that’s all they were. Stories. But Jimmy, crazy Jimmy Fowler. If he wasn’t his best friend and if he didn’t look up to him so much, George’d still be in bed.
Jimmy gained some ground on him, snapping twigs and cussing at the tearing undergrowth. As George’s mind drifted to his morning chores–making Ellie’s breakfast, making sure she cleaned up and brushed her teeth, and the cord of wood needing splitting–the sounds ahead disappeared. George suddenly felt alone, as if a rift in the earth had opened up and swallowed Jimmy, leaving him in the middle of God knows, not knowing the way home from his own elbow. He quickened his pace, still careful to avoid the grasping branches, the twisting roots.
When he broke through an opening in the undergrowth, he found Jimmy’s legs kicking out behind him, his top half buried in the ground. If George weren’t so scared, he would’ve found the discovery quite comical, but now, humor was the last thing on his mind. He ran to Jimmy, grabbed his thrashing feet, and pulled hard.
“What the hell are you doin’?” Jimmy cried out, his voice muffled by layers of earth.
“I thought you fell. With your legs shaking, I thought you were in some kind of trouble.” Thought something dragged you off, George wanted to say, but held his tongue.
Jimmy pushed away from the hole, field grass filling the entryway as he stood. If George hadn’t watched Jimmy pull free from hole, he wouldn’t have given the grassy berm a second look.
“I think this is it.” Even in the dark, George could see his beaming smile.
“What, that hole there?”
“Yeah, it opens up after a few feet. I tossed a rock down a ways, and it just kept going. Sounds pretty deep.”
“Well, are we going in?” George asked, his confidence fleeting with the passing seconds. He hoped Jimmy would change his mind. Not even thinking about impressing Betty Harris lent him much courage.
“‘Course we are. We’ve got a legend to slay. We’ll be heroes.”
“Right. Heroes. The two of us.”
White Bane. The two words prickled George’s spine. The beast was a two hundred pound albino catfish trolling a vast underground lake. The lake was real enough. It had given the local miners constant fits before the Grendal Coal Company pulled stakes. Decades ago, George’s distant cousin died in a flooded coalmine. A handful of miners drowned when an ill-placed TNT bundle breached the wall of the underground lake. The men died a half mile down, forced to inhale the floodwater into their coal-blackened lungs, no one near enough to hear their all-too-brief screams.
Greta would speak about White Bane in her quiet, raspy voice, warning about the beast that ate children who went wandering where they shouldn’t. As old as the hills, the catfish had long white whiskers and pink, unwavering eyes. White Bane could smell fear, would be brought to frenzy by it, leaping ashore to snatch at children with its jaws, or whipping them with its powerful tail. Either way, the result was the same. You weren’t going home.
George was about to put his foot down by suggesting they wait until it was light out to take on this particular adventure. But crazy Jimmy Fowler had already thrown his tackle inside and was shimmying into hole’s mouth. His torso disappeared, then his legs. With a grunt, Jimmy kicked off with his heel against a jutting rock, then was gone.
“Hand me your tackle.” Jimmy’s filthy hand snaked from the hole, his fingers grasping for George’s tackle box.
“Sure, hold on.” George lowered his fishing tackle to Jimmy’s waiting hand.
“How about the gun?”
“I think I’ll hold on to it.” They both had .22 rifles at home, having hunted small game since they could remember, but the over/under was a special weapon. It could do a heck of a lot more damage than any old .22. If he was going to get a whooping for taking the gun, then he was sure as hell going to carry it the whole time. His dad had been drinking for a week straight and wouldn’t even notice he had snuck out, but if he did wake up to see his precious gun missing…
“Fine.” Jimmy’s hand disappeared, mild disappointment in his voice. ”Are you coming?”
“Yeah, right behind you.” George strained getting inside while carrying the gun and the unlit lantern. Crawling through the opening, he left behind the night’s gloaming, entering an entirely different darkness. With his legs inside the hole, the damp, earthen walls felt like they were closing in to crush his body. He hurried forward, hand over hand, struggling with the gun in the narrow tunnel. Losing his balance, he fell over the edge, tumbling down a short slope. After coming to an abrupt halt, he braced himself to stand, his hand pressing against Jimmy’s shoe.
“That sure was graceful. You oughta be a ballerina.”
“Shut up.” George looked back through the tunnel to the nighttime sky. He couldn’t see much when he was outside, but inside the cave, he was as near to blind as he’d ever want to be.
Their voices were different. As was the air. It was impenetrable, consuming quiet sounds, while amplifying anything louder than their hushed voices. Their breathing disappeared; their footsteps sounded like a Roman legion. George, certain he would soon scream draped in the madness of the darkened cave, flicked a wooden match to light the lantern. He turned the breathe valve until its glow washed over the far-reaching limestone walls. He took it as a good sign that the lantern survived the fall.
The lamp pushed back the darkness, but didn’t reveal the entire cave. He swung the light in a small arc near his knees. Water had dripped away pockets, eating limestone layers one drip at a time. Everything was damp, seeping with wetness, shining with cave slime and mud.
They were quiet. Contemplative. They shuffled their feet, trying to figure out what to do next.
There seemed to be a zigzagging trail, just wide enough to walk down, winding away from the opening. The trail descended around a twist in the rock, but it sounded like water trickled in that direction.
“Jesus, you’re going to ruin everything with that damned lamp.” Jimmy sounded angry, but his face showed relief.
“You want me to turn it out again?”
“No. I suppose not. Not since you got it lit and all.”
Jimmy, hesitant for one of the few times George could remember, tentatively headed down the trail. ”Smells wet. I bet the lake’s not far away.” Jimmy made sure George was close by and following.
Spider webs broad as bed sheets blocked a niche off to the right. After seeing a spider’s measured movements, George swung the lantern in front of him again. A chill swept over him, and he hurried next to Jimmy.
“Looks like the walls are crying.” Jimmy trailed a finger along the porous wall. Mineral deposits stained the trickling water a reddish hue. To George, it looked more like blood than tears.
“Dead end,” George said after they had walked for a time. The area seemed to have suffered a cave in. Boulders and rubble sealed the shaft.
“Can’t be.” Jimmy, not willing to give up the adventure when it had only begun, hunted the shadows for another way. George stood right where he was without moving, not wanting to touch or see anything unsavory. At this point, he’d be happy enough just to turn around and go home.
“Hey, swing the light this way,” Jimmy said.
On his knees at the apparent dead end, Jimmy craned his head under a teetering rock. Near the floor, concealed by tumbled-over debris, the cavern picked up again under the rubble, sloping at an even steeper grade into the earth.
“That doesn’t look right.” Doesn’t look one bit safe, he thought.
“The shaft gets bigger.” His earlier reluctance was gone. He once again bustled with excitement. ”Listen… that water is louder. Sounds like a falls to me.”
Jimmy had a point. It might not be a waterfall, but it sounded like a heavier flow than the trickle they’d seen so far. ”All right. You first.”
George crouched low, holding the lantern inside the opening, lighting the way as Jimmy crawled ahead. ”Kinda slick. The floor’s covered in moss. And it stinks like cowshit.” Jimmy didn’t seem fazed at all.
“Great. Can’t wait.” George followed his friend, followed him when he had a feeling he shouldn’t. It was the story of their friendship.
The damp moss soaked their clothes. With steepness of the shaft, it was a minor miracle they reached a plateau without slipping the whole way down. Once again on level ground, the limestone ceiling was high enough to stand without hunching. The shaft opened into an extensive alcove. The twisting path led to a body of water with a surface so smooth and dark it could’ve been a pane of cobalt glass.
“Shit,” George whispered, his breath stolen by the sight.
Water fell from high up near the ceiling–so high the lantern’s light only hinted at the source–to a limestone slab spillway. The slab, as big as a church altar, dispersed the falling water. When it dribbled into the lake, it barely dimpled the surface.
“This has got to be it. Shit is right. Let’s drop our lines.” Jimmy approached the water and set down his tackle. He yanked the barbed hook from the pole’s cork handle, and with the line already carrying a tied-off bobber, flipped his wrist and the bobber went flying.
“You haven’t baited your hook.” A distance away, George approached the water with caution. While he didn’t truly believe Greta’s stories, it was better to be safe than sorry.
“I know. Just want to see how deep it is. You can tell by the sound when it hits the water.” The hook and bobber had made a thick, thoomping splash. The water was deep. As he cranked the reel to pull in the line, the metal gears sounded incredibly loud. ”Get me some bread. I guess that’ll have to do. Wish we’d had time to dig night crawlers.”
George took the hunk of bread from his tackle box and broke off two pieces. They baited their hooks and cast their lines in opposite directions, not wanting to tangle in the near-dark.
They sat side by side, the lantern lit and warm between them. They had no luck for quite a while, and the more time went by without any sign of White Bane, the more George felt at ease. It was a foolish story, anyway. A catfish lunging from the water in order to kill kids? Just an old story to make sure kids didn’t explore the abandoned coalmines marring the Illinois prairie. He imagined every coal town had a similar tale.
“Don’t matter if we catch him, I’m going to ask out Betty Harris regardless.” George didn’t take his eyes from his line. He dipped the pole, dancing the bobber on the cold black surface. His voice softened, becoming sheepish, “Then I’m going to marry her. Well, some day.”
“Really…? Well good for you. She’s a nice girl. Tit’s are a little big, more like a cow’s than a girl’s, but hey, whatever you like you like, right?”
“I’m just kidding. I’m happy for you. Just think about what you’re doing before you do it,” Jimmy said. The humor had left his voice. ”That’s all I gotta say.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Means I’m thinking about enlisting. In the Army. My mom might have to sign something, but I’m strong for my size. They should take me, even though I ain’t eighteen.”
“What the hell’re you getting at?” George was shocked, unable to figure why someone would enlist. Especially someone whose dad had died not long after coming home from the European trenches, his lungs just about liquefied from mustard gas.
“I gotta be a man. Make a living for myself.”
“That’s not what we planned.” Their plans went back many years. George would take over the farm from his dad and buy the vacant land next to their fallow plot. Jimmy would work his acreage with his brother Jacob; together, with their mom, they’d make a go of it.
“Yeah. Things change.” Jimmy stared at his fishing line. George hadn’t bothered casting again after pulling in his line. This was serious news. What about the picnics with their future wives and future kids? Sitting on the porch as old men, sipping hard cider and swapping familiar stories?
“What about Louise?”
Jimmy opened his mouth like he was about to say something, but then clamped it shut again.
“That’s the problem. I think I might be a father soon.”
“Yeah,” Jimmy said, staring at the water. Eyes widening, he pointed to something cutting through the water. ”Shit, what’s that?”
George jumped to his feet and reached for his tackle box, ready to tear tail out of there. Then the fish changed directions and he realized just how small it was. It might’ve been a bluegill, a crappie at most. Nothing dangerous. Neither fantastic nor mythical. ”That’s a pan fish, dingy.”
“I knew that. Really I did.” They both sighed with relief. Both seemed to want the adventure of searching for White Bane, but nothing of the actual confrontation. ”I thought you were going to push me in front of you, let that big, scary pan fish get me instead of you.”
“I would have, too. Don’t you doubt it for a second.” They laughed.
George swung his tackle box around as he reached to pick up his pole again. In the process, he knocked the lantern over, sending it cracked and broken into the underground lake.
Instantly, they stood in utter darkness. Their breath hitched in their throats, otherwise, all they took in from their senses was the cold air.
“Clumsy. God damn, George. Now what are we supposed to do? We’re damn near a mile underground.”
“It ain’t that far.”
“Might as well be. We’re blind.”
Not knowing what else to say, but needing to hear his own voice, George said, “Well, you said we should let our eyes adjust.”
“You got your matches, right?”
“Yeah, I think I’ve got a couple left. Let me check.” He patted his pockets, found the smashed box. He slid it open, felt inside.
“Okay, don’t panic,” Jimmy said.
“I’m not. I still got three matches.”
“I wasn’t talking to you, just thinking out loud.”
“Hell, just find something to burn. We can make a torch.”
They hunted around on the floor, their hands encountering mud and flaked rock. Anything flammable had rotted and disintegrated in the damp atmosphere.
“How about in your tackle box?” Jimmy asked, his voice sounding far away.
“Didn’t think of that. Let me check. How about you? Don’t you have a comic with you when you fish?”
“Let me see… If I can find my box… Here we go; Tarzan might have to burn to get us out of here.” Jimmy tore open his tackle box. Spoons and hooks rattled as he removed the top tray. Turning toward Jimmy’s racket, George saw something, a glimmer, a phantom movement, something, in the distance hovering by the lake.
“Jimmy,” George whispered.
“Damn. Nothing. I bet Jacob snatched my last Tarzan. I’m gonna whip his ass when I get home.”
“What the hell are you yapping about?”
“I see something. At least, I think I do.” George did see movement. A flickering light, maybe a reflection off the water, on the far side of the lake.
“Just the other side of the water.”
“Can’t see nothing. I think you’re going loony. Wait… I think I know what you mean. A wavery light. It’s dim.”
They both edged to the shore, standing shoulder to shoulder, trying to pick up the slightest detail. It was so quiet; the blood throbbed in George’s ears as he strained to hear.
They nearly leapt from their skins as heavy chains rattled from somewhere near the phantom light.
Chains? George thought. ”Shit. Let’s skinny out of here.”
“Wait, that could be someone. Give me a second.” He stepped into the water. ”Damn cold.”
“What are you doing? You crazy?”
“Yeah, I think I just might be.” Jimmy’s splashing formed small waves as he waded deeper. ”There it is, found the drop off. It’s maybe eight, ten feet in. Then it’s deep as hell.” His splashing increased as he dog paddled away from shore. ”It is a light, George. There’s an overhang. Might be a tunnel or something. The light’s down the other side.”
“Come on now, Jimmy. We should find our way back the way we came.”
“What fun is that? Someone must’ve lit that fire, so there must be someone who can help us get the hell out’a here.”
“Shit, Jimmy,” George said, more to himself than anything. Even trapped in darkness and without a light to guide their way, George couldn’t stop thinking: Crazy Jimmy Fowler’s gonna be a dad. Who would’ve thought? His friend risked everything swimming in water as cold as a witch’s tit, and with White Bane possibly nipping just under his feet. ”Jimmy?”