“You’re sure you weren’t smoking?”
The smell of spent cigarettes clung to his jacket like a poltergeist. He had been riding around with his friends and hoped that keeping the windows down on the way home had dispersed some of the smell. But he had been smoking long enough to know it was impossible to avoid that odor. It crawled into your clothes, climbed into your pores, and all the cologne in the world couldn’t hide it.
He responded, “No,” knowing full well he had a pack of Camels stashed under his mattress.
“Okay, because you know how I feel about smoking. Your Uncle Harry just passed last year from lung cancer.” She always said it to him as if he had forgotten. Uncle Harry had lived just two streets over and had been a constant in his life. And back when Uncle Harry was still among the living, Bill had even snatched a few cigarettes from his pack when he wasn’t looking. “And well, you know what happened to my father. You don’t want to end up like that, sweetheart. Spending your last years being wheeled around by other people, taking breaks to use an oxygen mask. It’s terrible.”
“I know mom. I know. But I wasn’t smoking.”
“You sure do smell like it.”
“It was Kenny, Mom.” Kenny was always Bill’s fall guy because Kenny was on a first name basis with the police. “But please don’t tell his parents.”
“Kenny’s not my problem. You are. And you better be telling me the truth.” She had her index finger pointed right at him–like a dagger–as she said it.
Lying to her always took a toll on him. She was so kind to him, always had been, even before his dad died ten years ago. Dad didn’t die from smoking like ol’ Uncle Harry and Bill’s grandfather. The man ate right, was kind to people, and paid his taxes on time. But drunk drivers on the interstate don’t care about such things, do they?
“Mom, I told you. It was Kenny.”
“Okay. Okay.” She walked over to him. “I know it’s not a school night but you still need to get some sleep.”
She took a moment to fix his cowlick, a habit of hers that had started when he was a toddler, then took both of his cheeks in her hands and kissed him on the forehead. The nightly ritual.
At 18-years-old, Bill had known for a long time he had one of the best mothers in the world. A woman that had grace and kindness in spades. He never took pleasure in lying to her. But his body was in its heyday. Its prime. He could be a little rough on it. Not to mention that Rachel had bummed a cigarette off him this afternoon when they were parked up at Dead Children’s Playground—their favorite place to sneak off to smoke and drink a few beers when they were lucky enough to get a six pack. Without that trusty pack of Camels in his pocket, she would have just moved on to talk to Jake, who was taller than Bill, smarter, and more athletic. The guy was nice too. Didn’t seem fair for one human to possess all those attributes.
But rather than sidling up to Jake and flirting with him like she usually did, Rachel had come over to Bill and asked for a smoke. Fumbling around in his pockets, he had awkwardly got out the pack and lighter (thanking God he hadn’t gotten a soft pack, which usually left the cigarettes looking like sad noodles), handed her one, then performed his best Cary Grant impression, trying to rakishly light the cigarette. He and his mom loved watching Cary Grant movies together and in all those films the girl definitely stayed to chat. Bill was no Cary Grant, but to his surprise, Rachel had stayed and talked to him. Not only that, they had also discovered they had things in common: horror movies and metal music. This tall blond with flawless skin and hair that hung down like the wisps of a willow tree, thought John Carpenter was one of the greatest directors of all time.
She didn’t even talk to Jake while they were there. All because of a cigarette.
So, sorry Grandad and Uncle Harry.
And sorry Mom.
Also, he supposed he would owe his mother yet another apology, because Bill had no intention of making it an early night. He had explored the caves hidden back in the woods behind his house more times than he could remember during the day, but never under the cover of night.
The time had come to right that wrong.
From what he knew, the caves used to be some kind of limestone mining operation. That was, until it shut down decades ago and the mining company left the town of Veil, Georgia behind. The site had gone on abandoned for longer than anyone could remember. People just accepted that these caves existed in the back of the neighborhood as a popular spot for kids, high schoolers, and hikers to explore. Well, the hikers came to explore. The rest came to do all things prohibited within sight of the world. No Trespassing signs were posted at every entrance, but that was little deterrent because the police didn’t enforce the warning. If law enforcement didn’t care, then why should anyone else?
Initially, it was the stories that brought Bill and his crew up here. One night, after several Budweisers, Bill’s uncle told him that back in the nineties—during the Satanic Panic—people came up here to slaughter animals in honor of Satan. There were even rumors that human sacrifices were being performed. This was years ago when Bill was only seven or eight. Kids that age will believe just about anything and not only had Bill believed the stories, but they had also captivated the dark side of his curiosity. How could anyone in this neighborhood sleep without knowing what was in those caves?
In keeping with the town’s indifference to trespassing, there was a hole cut in the chain-link fence that closed in the west side of the property. Bill pulled back the thin metal and went through.
Sneaking out of his house had been easy. His mother slept like the dead, always had, even after his dad died. Maybe God thought she deserved mercy for having to become a single mom, who had foregone grad school to help support her husband through law school and as a result, didn’t have a leg to stand on in the job market, not to mention a canyon-sized hole in her resume´. She eventually found work in human resources at the hospital—good hours, good pay, more stress than she liked, but she stuck it out. And despite all that she had endured, all the shit she had had to shovel over the years, she was always able to sleep, which allowed Bill to start sneaking out as a teen. To this day, he was batting a thousand; she had never caught him.
The sounds of full dark greeted Bill: a sporadic hoot from an owl, the whir of crickets, and police sirens far off in the distance. The crunch of the gravel echoed off the walls as he made his way down into the caves. The temperature dropped the further he went into the Earth, making him thankful he had put on his hoodie. He always got a shot of adrenaline when the temperature descended right before he entered the mouth of the cave—the quick plummet made it feel like he was entering a different world.
The next shot of adrenaline came when he had to choose. Like a monster from another planet, the cave had three mouths: Door Number One, Two, or Three. All had paths that snaked around in different directions.
Tonight, it would be Door Number Two.
In he went. The darkness swallowed him.
A manmade hole above, presumably to lower tools without having to make a trip back out, was just ahead, letting in a glittery tube of moon-light. The terrain was familiar; he knew every bend and turn back here. Darkness shrouded the walls of the cave from view. In the day-time, he could see the walls, the grooves, the little ledges that jutted out, the water trickling down the face. Right now, he could only see the tube of light ahead, the gravel at his feet, and whatever was in the path of his flashlight. He found himself moving the light to the wall again and again to make sure that it was still there and most importantly, that he was still alone.
Deciding to bypass the cone of moon-light in favor of going deeper inside, he forged on. The back of the cave wasn’t too far away and what he really came here for, what he really wanted to know, is what happened at night in the alcove carved out of a high rock-face at the back of the cave. What he and his friends called the Cubby Hole.
Before he ventured into the Cubby Hole, he decided it was best to shine the light in and make sure there weren’t any large critters, or worse, some kind of predator like a bobcat, waiting for him back there.
He saw nothing there. So he ventured in.
The ceiling was low and always coated in a layer of moisture. He moved the flashlight around, taking in the small rivulets of water, dripping down like tears. He saw where he and his friends had graffitied the wall a few weeks back. Struggling for something cool to tag on the wall, they had finally settled on Nirvana lyrics. The mold and the water were already erasing their hard work. Nothing seemed to last long back here.
Enough of the Cubby Hole. Time to see what happened on the north end of the cave at night.
As exited the alcove, he turned off his flashlight. He wanted to see if he could handle walking along the back of the cave in the dark. Really take in the atmosphere in the absence of light.
He knew the path by heart. Just like he could walk down the stairs at his house while carrying a box without looking at his feet.
Walking in pitch dark, suddenly, he heard what sounded like wings woosh.
It came again. Louder this time. A gigantic woosh, sounding like a train passing by.
It can’t be a bird. No bird is that big. He told himself it was all in his head; there was nothing back here with him.
Thunderous, the woosh came again, bringing a blast of wind that knocked his hair out of place. Something was above him.
Looking up, Bill saw two giant red orbs hovering above him like red stars. Like a locomotive coming straight for him, a giant black mass tore loose of the cave’s ceiling. It descended in front of him, colliding with the floor in a concussive thump that almost knocked Bill off his feet.
Bill beheld the creature standing before him. It was impossibly tall—at least ten feet, maybe more. He looked at the enormous wings that had made the titanic wind-like sound. Its body was as black as the night that surrounded them. Scales covered every inch of its torso and legs. Massive taloned feet clicked and scratched against the gravel.
Without warning, time faded.
How long he stood there he would never know.
Somewhere along the way he realized that his paralysis wasn’t because of fear. The monster radiated an energy that commandeered Bill’s body and mind, but it was soft and soothing, lulling him into willful submission. He started hearing it speak in his head alongside his own thoughts, as if they were just having a normal conversation. Its voice was comforting, an old friend.
The thing brought him close, wrapping him in wings as big as sails. Then, like a loving parent putting him to bed, it lowered him to the ground, keeping him wrapped in its cosmic warmth the whole time.
The creature was kind. It meant him no harm.
It had something to tell him. Something dire. Urgent. His town was on the precipice of tragedy. People here needed help but it wasn’t the one to convey the message. Bill’s kind wouldn’t listen to it.
The creature delivered the message.
Hours later, sunlight cut through the entrance of the cave, shaking Bill from sleep.
He was alone. The creature was gone.
“Mom, call the hospital. You have to warn them.” Bill decided not to tell her the truth. Better to say it was a human being—a person feeling guilty about being part of a criminal conspiracy. Bill knew it wouldn’t hold up for long, but it was the best he could do on the fly. His mom would eventually get wise and ask questions that would expose the cracks in his story.
As expected, his mother looked at him like he was crazy. Which, he had to admit, this whole thing was.
But Bill couldn’t shake the feeling the creature had been honest. He remembered that feeling of ethereal warmth—glowing and endless and impossibly beautiful—when he had been cradled in its wings, and it convinced him the creature wanted to help the humans in his town.
“Mom, they will listen to you.”
“Bill, I don’t even work in the actual hospital. I work in H.R. Not to mention they will think I’ve lost it.” Pleading with her, Bill reminded her what was at stake: Someone had told him the hospital was going to burn down and forty-six people would die. She asked him about the number again and he reiterated that it would be exactly that number. He couldn’t tell her exactly why but that’s what the man had told him.
“We have top-notch security there and the fire alarms are state of the art. I don’t even know how someone could get around that.”
“That stuff can be hacked now. It’s not as hard as you think.”
A careworn sigh escaped her. In a subdued, mournful tone, she said, “This is where I work son. I could be risking my job.”
At that, he collapsed, crying and slapping his temples, pulling at his hair, trying to displace his angst and guilt. All those people were going to die if he didn’t do anything. That creature had made him certain of it.
He looked at his mother, big eyes filled with tears, and said the only thing he thought might work: “What if they die and you did nothing?”
Twenty minutes later, after hanging up with one of the hospital administrators, that had assured her the information was passed along to the CEO, she came in to check on him.
“They’re not going to do anything, are they?”
“They said they’d look into it.”
“It’s going to happen. I know it.”
“I hope you’re wrong, son.”
From the Veil Times, dated June 12, 2018:
Last night a fire claimed 47 lives at the main building of Veil Hospital. Authorities are still trying to determine what, or who, started the fire. An anonymous police source said they believe it was possibly a terrorist attack related to a ransom-ware demand. Although the hospital is equipped with a cutting-edge fire prevention system, it failed last night. The system—installed a year ago—relies on a Wi-Fi network. Police believe the perpetrators disabled the system and then went in and started the fire. The investigation is ongoing.