The writing wasn’t going well. I’d spent the morning listing reasons why until finally I gave up, closed my laptop and stared into space. Even my mind was too lazy to wander.
That’s when I noticed the corner floor boards didn’t quite match. There was a hand-sized piece added in, with a gap just big enough for a screwdriver. I knelt on the floor, wondering what the others at this retreat would think if they saw me. But they were probably all busy writing a chapter of their next best seller. I was so out of my league.
I studied the anomaly. I didn’t have a screwdriver but my nail scissors fitted into the gap, catching the end of the wood square and lifting it just enough for one fingertip. The piece came up, revealing a gold-coloured handle just begging to be pulled. Who was I to refuse?
The well-oiled handle moved easily, but with no apparent effect. No sliding panel appeared, no secret space was exposed. I sat back on my haunches looking at the useless piece of metal in the hole. Who would be so cruel as to put a wonderfully well-hidden golden handle in the corner of a room – a writer’s room, for goodness sake – and then have it do nothing?
I should take this up with the management. Shoving the square into the hole I stood, dusting my palms against my jeans. Back to business. Maybe I could write about a hidden door. At least that would be something.
But I needed fresh air first. I turned to go outside and the worn floor rug gave way. Tangled in the mat, I bounced down a flight of stairs for what felt like hours but was probably only seconds. I shoved the rug off, coughed, and looked up as the trap door snapped shut, leaving me in suffocating darkness.
The short bald man shuffled his feet.
“Director?” he said. “Cabin four…”
She looked over her half-moon glasses.
“The girl in four,” he hurried on, “she’s gone. When I took her lunch she didn’t answer.”
The director put down her pen. “And?” she asked.
“Well, I looked inside…”
The director sighed. “And?” she prompted.
“The cabin is empty. She’s not there.”
“A walk in the woods, perhaps?” The director arched a finely-drawn eyebrow.
“No,” the bald man replied. “The rug is gone.”
My heart hammered as my eyes fought to make out something, anything. The absence of light was absolute but when the dust settled at least breathing became easier.
With a groan I unfolded myself, one hand against the wall, the other rubbing the pain in my haunches. I was still half-bent when the roof connected with my head. Great, I thought, another ache I didn’t have before. I wasn’t tall by any means, so this tunnel must be for midgets. I fumbled my way up to the top of the steps, but the trap door was firmly closed. No handle, no button, no spring-loaded lever.
I’ve never been good in the dark.
I panicked, yelling and screaming, pounding at the hatch until the agony in my hands eclipsed my other aches. As my last thump died away, silence crept back and I realised no one was coming.
With one of my only two options firmly squashed, I had no choice but to follow the tunnel onward and upward. At least, I hoped there would be an upward at some stage.
The walls were dry, just dust against my fingertips, and I prayed the roof wouldn’t come down on me. I worked out I was walking, in a loose sense of the word, away from the centre of the compound. I’d been meaning to explore the woods, just not from underground. But the tunnel must go somewhere, so I kept going.
The bald man left the rustic outbuilding with a small rolled up carpet.
He went around the back of the cabins, where there were no windows, until he reached number four. Slipping around to the front, he tapped on the door, twice, but received no answer. Finally he popped his face in to ensure it was still empty before sliding in and closing the door behind him. The outline of the trap door was hardly visible; he only saw it because he knew where to look. The replacement carpet was slightly bigger than its predecessor but it would fit.
It was the last small rug in the storeroom, and soon he would need to start going into the tunnels to collect the others. He hated that part of his job but the small, worn rugs served a specific purpose and it had to be done if he didn’t want to aggravate the director.
Mindful of how disobedient employees disappeared, and knowing where they went, the bald man unrolled the rug and settled it over the trap door.
The air was getting better. There was the suggestion of a breeze across my cheeks, but still no light. My back was killing me and if I was certain the roof wouldn’t collapse, I’d have spewed out a loud stream of vitriol worthy of a sailor.
I plonked down onto my butt, stretching my legs before me and wiggling my toes. Refusing to think about what might be under me, I lay down flat and stretched my spine and shoulders. How long had I been creeping along this passageway? Why didn’t I buy the more expensive watch with the push button light? But the luminous dial of my cheap watch was comforting if not helpful, since I had no idea when I’d fallen down the rabbit hole. But I guessed I’d been in the dark for about half an hour.
How far had I come? How extensive were the woods? What was beyond them?
I should be writing these questions down, and a good writer would have a notebook in a back pocket and a pencil behind the ear. But even if I’d had the tools of my trade, I still couldn’t see. I blinked a few times, sat up and squirmed onto my knees. My back refused to return to its hunched position so the only answer was to crawl. Soon I would probably reach the point of no return. Hell, maybe I’d already passed it, who knew?
The tunnel turned a little left and slightly downward. But the roof wasn’t dipping with it and soon I was almost upright. The air was fresher too. Around the bend I saw a grey patch in the darkness. Another bend and there was actual light ahead, a way out of this burrow.
But in my eagerness to get out I overlooked the floor slanting downwards. The slope beneath my feet suddenly became much steeper and I careened and tumbled like a kid on a slippy-slide. I shot out into light, tumbling and landing on a mound of dry, white bones.
With the breath knocked out of me I lay there, aching in new and wondrous parts of my anatomy, staring at the dark green leafy canopy over my head.
The bald man slunk past the window, trying not to be seen. But when there was a smart tap on the glass he turned before he could stop himself. A red-tipped finger beckoned and with a sigh he climbed the steps to the administration block.
“How long has it been?” the director asked. “Long enough?”
The unhappy little man nodded.
“Good.” The director smiled, rubbing her hands together.
She slipped into her signature red coat and exchanged stilettos for pumps. They left by the side door, following the marked walk into the woods. The director nodded and made encouraging noises at one or two writers who’d ventured from their cabins. Further into the gloom of the tall trees, she looked around before stepping from the path and heading into the thick undergrowth.
“Careful, stay with me,” the director whispered, as if the man hadn’t followed her like this innumerable times. He kept his eyes on her back and his mind empty of memories.
They approached their destination and the woman held up a hand for silence. She wriggled forward to a gap in the undergrowth, a small space no one else would have noticed, and the man joined her. The woman peered forward, eager tongue peeking out between her curved lips. The man scanned the crater below, hoping against hope it was empty.
Groaning, I sat up amid bones that had once been live animals. I mean, they couldn’t possibly be not-animals, could they? There were so many, some crushed by something with big teeth, but many just clean. They might have been replicas, castings made from some sturdy white plastic stuff, as long as one didn’t look too closely at the few dark patches. I breathed deep, surprised to find no malodour. It seemed, down here, nothing lasted long enough to rot.
My mind focused on the setting and not my situation, avoiding the big questions and the fear they generated. Inside I was petrified of the unseen thing that had licked these bones clean. But I wasn’t dead yet. And I was only a few miles from civilization. That is to say, the highly civilized writers whose retreat I’d really had no right to crash, considering I hadn’t even completed a novel, never mind published. On reflection, I couldn’t expect any of them to miss me and come looking.
I was on my own.
Looking around, I found myself in a pit with sheer earthen walls punctuated by tunnels way above head height. So many, I couldn’t be sure which was mine, even if I could reach it. My prison walls were topped by thick bushes and trees that shut out the sunlight overhead, with no break to indicate a pathway.
That could only mean one thing.
Whatever had me on the menu was down here. I looked again at the tunnels. The sun was past its zenith (I always wanted to say that), slanting dappled light into the holes behind me, but leaving those before me in darkness.
Did something move there?
Did I need to get out while I could still see?
As I struggled to stand on the shaky pile of bones, a flash of red caught my eye and I turned, blinked, but it was gone.
Once they were back on the marked walk, the bald man cleared his throat.
“I think she saw you.”
“Nonsense, the sun was in her eyes,” the director scoffed, dusting her hands. “Anyway, what if she did?”
“But if she escapes …”
The woman laughed heartily at the joke. She strode ahead, chuckling as she led the way back to the compound.
I stumbled around the perimeter, looking for handholds or roots to climb. The handholds crumbled in my grip, the roots were puny. It looked like the resident creature rubbed against the walls to keep them smooth. But to do that it had to be the size of… my mind shied away. It didn’t matter what the creature was like. I wasn’t staying to meet it. I was getting the hell out of Dodge (another tick on my ‘always wanted to say’ list).
Now, how would MacGyver get out? Okay, bad example. MacGyver would pull string from his pocket, make a kite from the bones and rise out on a zephyr. But he would use what there were plenty of – bones.
Later, with the sun approaching the rim of my current world, I had a pile of broken bones I hoped were sharp enough to pierce the earthen rampart, and I had a large unbroken bone to use as a hammer.
Dear God, I prayed, please let this work.
The director changed into a scarlet evening gown before joining the group in the main building. The seven remaining writers congregated before the large fireplace, warding off the slight chill of the changing seasons. Holding crystal glasses, they exchanged pleasantries and polite enquiries. Most didn’t actually care how the others’ writing was going, but they knew you couldn’t mention yours until you’d asked about theirs.
The director studied them from the doorway, how alike they were, clones almost. She spared a brief thought for the missing eighth, so different.
One man saw her and drew her into conversation, asking her opinion on the intentional cliché, aching really to share his own. She smiled, as if she didn’t hear a similar question at every retreat.
The little bald man had also dressed for dinner but his costume and posture suited the servant he was. He studied the assembly with an entirely different objective. No, he thought, none of this lot will help her, and that saddened him. He liked her, she was the first guest who’d been kind to him, the only one ever to ask his name.
I saw this film once, where bricks stuck out in a spiral around the outside of a tower and the hero ran up them like a staircase. I planned something similar with my bones – well, not my bones, you understand. I found a good starting point, where my spiral would curl upwards without crossing a tunnel entrance. Bad enough being on the menu, no need to be Meals on Wheels.
It was tough hammering the bones into the wall so they were stable enough to bear my weight. And it got noisy. I wasn’t sure whether that was good or bad, but noisy it was and I went with it, adding a scathing and colourful monologue aimed at my absent host.
The first few rungs weren’t too bad, but when I couldn’t reach any higher I had to stand on one at the bottom to get another one in at the top. And I had to climb down for another sharp bone and up again to knock it in.
As the light faded, progress became more difficult.
And more urgent.
After dinner, when the authors moved to the lounge for nightcaps, the bald man slipped away. He didn’t have much time, he’d be missed soon. But he couldn’t wait any longer. In fact, seeing the sun dip below the horizon, it might already be too late.
He ran, sure-footed as a gazelle, where the director usually led. She believed he couldn’t find his way without her. Stupid woman. But oh so dangerous, her and her revolting plaything.
Arriving at the edge of the pit, he hesitated, afraid to look, afraid not to. But he heard her, she was still alive.
“Miss? Where are you?” he called into the dark hole.
“Here,” she replied, breathless. “Help me!”
The man pushed through undergrowth to get closer to her voice. Shoving branches aside, he saw the pale oval of her face, her arm stretched up. As his own short arm grasped her wrist, a subtle grating below told him he was just in time.
I’ve never been so happy to see anyone in my life.
Trekking up and down had finished me. The bottom of the pit was solid darkness and I’d heard ever-so-slight prickly noises, like something scratching itchy skin. I might have seen electric-blue flashes in one tunnel. I could have imagined it. But I didn’t think so.
When Jenkins appeared, my first thought was, Couldn’t it be someone stronger? But he had a vice-like grip, and when he pulled I was sure my arm would break. I wouldn’t have minded, you understand. Broken bones heal; gnawed bones, not so much.
I burst over the brink of my prison, landing squarely on my champion, winding him. We lay there, breathing deeply, and I turned to look at him.
“Jenkins,” I smiled, “you’re officially my hero.”
“Thank you, miss,” he replied. “Now, we need to get away from here.”
“Without even a gander at my host below?” I said. “And me a writer desperately in need of inspiration?”
“Miss, what’s below will give you nightmares rather than inspiration.”
“Fair enough. I bow to your superior knowledge.” I clambered to my feet. “Right, let’s get this show on the road, shall we?”
“You do love your clichés,” he chuckled as he led the way.
A while later I said, “Jenkins, are you sure you know the way? Every inch of me is scratched and scraped.”
“We’re avoiding the direct paths.”
I started to ask why, but he gestured for silence. I froze behind him, peering over his shoulder. Someone passed by, heading toward the pit. Someone in a red coat.
“Keep going that way,” he whispered, “your cabin is just over there. I’ve got to do something.” He turned and was gone.
Back in my cabin I pulled the rug away and nudged the trap door a few times with a toe to be sure it was safe. Then I pulled the arm chair over it for good measure. And contrary to expectation, I slept soundly, thanks to a handful of aspirin and half a purloined bottle of Scotch.
In the morning, sunshine filled the empty breakfast room. Finding myself somewhat partial to bright light now, I sat near the window and Jenkins appeared at my side.
“Good morning, miss,” he murmured. “What can I get for you?”
“An explanation would be first prize,” I replied, and he smiled but offered nothing.
I gave him my order and he headed towards the kitchen, returning with orange juice and a warm muffin. I broke the muffin and reached for the butter. Jenkins stayed at my shoulder.
“Pardon me, miss,” he said, “I thought I should mention. There’s a position opened up here and I wondered if you’d like to apply.”
“Really?” I was curious. “What position?”
“Director, miss,” Jenkins supplied, “and might I say it would be my pleasure to work for you.”