Sara leaned forward as I parked the car, peering out the window at the wide expanse of pines and cedars off the beaten Georgia path. The man we were following, a local named Tony, was already out of his truck and bounding off into the ditch separating the road from the woods.
“You think there’s anything to this place?” she asked, turning to look at me before popping her door open.
I shrugged and got out of the driver’s side, still looking at her over the top of the car. “No clue,” I said, closing my own door. “I doubt we’ll find anything real out there, but we’ll at least get a few pictures for the book.”
We were based out of Atlanta, a couple of down-on-their-luck alumni who turned fortune around by investigating local lore and legends. For the most part, we talked about crime and arson. Some bank got robbed in the 1920s, a paper mill burned to the ground in the 1940s, things like that. When we interviewed the people who lived in the town when the paper mill burned, I thought they might start gagging at the memory.
But this was October, and our Facebook fans wanted shots of the creepiest things we could find. The South always catches ghost fever in the fall, and we needed to appease our followers until we got the next book out. Of the two of us, Sara was the photographer, and I handled captions, blurbs, and status updates.
Tony was already at the tree line, looking back at us like he was ready to get on with it. It was a little after midday, and we gathered a little information about local lore at a greasy spoon on Main Street. Tony chimed in and said he knew where we could find something good, so we paid his tab and followed him out to… Well, wherever we were.
“Y’all comin’?” he asked.
“Yessir,” I called back. “On my way.” I shouldered my messenger bag more comfortably onto my hip and followed suit, skipping over the ditch and into the grassy area where Tony and Sara stood waiting. She was already trying to corral him into a shot with the trees at his back, camera at the ready. Tony seemed reluctant, but he agreed to be photographed, even if he didn’t take off his John Deere hat.
She nodded at the camera’s display. “Looks good.” She spun it around to show Tony the shot of himself, but he grunted something and shooed the camera away. He didn’t seem like the kind who was photographed often, and, judging by his John Deere hat, wifebeater, and coveralls, he didn’t wake up this morning with any plans of being photographed. He was an older guy, probably as old as Sara and I put together, but he carried himself with a way that showed he knew how to work.
“One sec, Tony,” I said. I pulled the recorder out of a small pocket on the messenger bag, checked to make sure I had an SD card in it, and flicked it on. A red light came on, and I spoke a few words into the microphone before replaying it to make sure it was recording properly. It was, so I pressed on with the short interview.
“October 18,” I began. “Afternoon, in Cedar Ridge, on the side of a dirt road with Sara and our new friend Tony. What can you tell us about what we’re going to see today, Tony?”
I held the recorder out to him mic-first, and he shied away from it like it was a rattlesnake. He coughed and glanced about, but he finally began. “There’s an old coal mine across a field over yonder,” he said, turning to point through the trees. “They say it opened up back in the 1800s, but there was a cave-in about fifty years ago, and they never used it again.” He paused for a moment, spat into the trees, and continued. “Handful of miners died in the cave in. Some of them was the daddies of some older kids at school. Made for a huge scene at the time, but I doubt anybody outside Chattooga County ever heard of it. Didn’t have worldwide news like we did when them Mexican fellas got stuck a few years back.”
With the mic back at my mouth, I said, “You said back at the diner there were ghosts out here?”
He never looked away from those trees. “Yup,” he said. “You can see ‘em out there some nights, walkin’ around glowin’ like it’s some kind of Civil War park.”
Sara turned to me with a raised eyebrow. I shrugged, but let Tony keep his momentum.
“The miners?” I asked.
He nodded. “S’what they say. Few of them boys I know from school went missin’ after that. The boys of the miners, that is. Oldest one mighta been ten. Maybe eleven.”
“Were they ever found?”
Tony turned back to me. Something sparked in his eyes, and he shook his head. “Nope,” he said, looking back to the trees. “Never found ‘em. They searched everywhere but the old mine, but the sheriff didn’t want anybody else goin’ in there, didn’t want to risk losin’ his men or anyone else down there. Said if them boys went in there, they was as good as dead anyway.”
“Can you show us where the mine is?”
Tony took a few steps toward the trees and stopped short. “I’ll point you in the right direction, but I ain’t goin over there.” Then he did point. “You just walk right through these trees here, and you’ll see a field on the other side. I’ll be honest: sometimes there’s things in that field, sometimes they ain’t. Whether there is or ain’t, I don’t mean to find out. You just walk across that field and you’ll see some old buildins. They should be right next to a little stream called Coal Creek. Follow that stream a ways, and you’ll see the mines. Should be fine walkin’ around out there. Just don’t go in, whatever you do. You get them pitchers you need and get the hell out of there, you hear?”
We said we’d be fine, and I followed Sara through the trees.
The afternoon was cool, but the October sun kept it bearable. Both of us grunted and cursed our way through the span of trees–probably about two hundred feet across–but we fared better than we did on previous nature excursions. At least Sara remembered to wear boots this time. I looked over my shoulder and saw Tony peering in after us, looking like a kid that didn’t want to quite press his face against a window. I waved at him, and he gave a cautious wave back. He seemed less reserved back at the diner, but I guessed mention of the missing kids he went to school with might have shaken him up a little.
“Think there’s anything to this?” Sara asked. She grinned, and I could hear the sarcasm in her voice. Our fan page might eat this kind of thing up, but she always thought the October ghost hunts were silly. She wanted to be snapping pictures back in Atlanta or some other place where we didn’t have to keep checking our phones to make sure we still had a link to civilization.
“Doubt it,” I said. I’d never seen anything on these trips either, but time out of the city felt nice. Even if we didn’t find anything out of the ordinary, our followers would at least appreciate a picture of an open coal mine with a history to it.
We pushed through the other edge of the trees and stumbled into the clearing.
Sara quickly raised her camera and snapped a picture.
There were figures in the field, but not the glowing phantasms Tony mentioned. “What are they?” Sara asked. “Scarecrows?”
I guessed they might have been, but not of a variety I’d ever seen. This open field was several acres, but I saw nearly a dozen scarecrows–I couldn’t think of a better name for them myself–before I stopped counting. They were stretched out on big Xs, spreadeagle, hands pointing to the skies. The clothes were simple, and I could tell even at a distance that they looked like they were made of very coarse material, the kind used for potato sacks. All of them wore black hoods that came to a point at the top. I swallowed and considered going back to Tony to see if he knew anything about these. “Those almost look like Klan hoods,” I said.
Sara nodded. “White, and they would be.”
She took a few more pictures along the way as we came to the first one. The thing was of a similar size to the human it represented, and the sackcloth filled out convincingly. It was bound to the wooden X frame with baling string, and the frame itself appeared to be made from railroad ties. I planted a hand onto it and pushed in, exhaling with relief as it gave way. I almost expected to feel a body in here, but it felt like hay instead. Sara took another picture before standing on her toes and reaching for the hood.
“What are you doing?” I asked
She grinned. “You’re going to wear this thing, and I’m going to take a picture for the book. Facebook will eat it up.”
I fidgeted, not sure if I wanted to wear the hood. Something about it, about the way everything was arranged, shook me. Tony’s story didn’t help my mood.
Sara screamed. I snapped back to myself as she fell backwards, arms flailing as she fell on her bottom and started pushing herself away. She curled up with the camera held tight against her chest. Her face was white, and I thought for a moment that she might cry.
I knelt beside her. “What’s wrong?”
She caught her breath, but she still shook. “It’s a head, Brice. There’s a head in there.”
I gave her an odd look before standing back up and reaching for the hood. “Don’t!” Sara said. “We have to, we have to call the cops or something. Don’t go messing with it.”
I pushed the hood away, and, sure enough, there was a face in there. The eyes were shut tight, and the expression was tight enough to reveal twin rows of uneven teeth. I pushed the hood up further, and the sheet of paper with the face on it fell away, spinning in the breeze before coming to a rest on the ground. “Is that your face?” I asked, pointing to it. I might have been grinning like an idiot.
Sara stared as the paper fell in front of her. “A drawing?” she said, picking it up and holding it in front of herself. She laughed out of disbelief. “This thing doesn’t even look like a face out in the open. Looks like a second grader did this.” She sat it down in front of her and snapped a picture, and then she looked back up to me. “What do you think it was doing in there?”
“No clue. We’ll ask Tony when we get back out.”
She stood holding the drawing and handed it out to me. “Here, you take this. I don’t want it any more.” I took it from her, and she quickly rubbed her hands against her thighs as if trying to scrub them clean. I put the drawing in my messenger bag, and we kept walking across the field. When we came to the next scarecrow, I looked under the hood and found another face drawing in there. The eyes looked angry, but the mouth was open in a shocked O.
“Just leave it,” Sara said. “We’ve already got one.”
I shrugged. She was right. “Come on, we’re almost to the edge.” I pointed up ahead and could even see the sparkle of the little stream in the sunlight. We came to the edge of the field, which ended in a ditch before going back to the creek embankment. It was just wide enough to need a bridge, which we found nearly a hundred feet away from where we stood. The bridge was probably as old as the coal mine itself, but it was made well enough to have weathered the years. The creek was only about ten feet across, but I could tell it would be deep enough to get your pants wet past the knee if you tried wading it.
On the other side of the bridge was another small field, this one littered with a few sheds and other ramshackle buildings. Some looked large enough to have been homes at one point, but they did not fare so well as the bridge. Sara brought up her camera and snapped a few shots, already walking towards the ruins.
“Hey,” I said. “Let’s check out the mine first. We can come back here later, but we’re not going to see anything in that mine once the sun sets.”
Sara nodded. “All right.” She turned away from the buildings, and we walked side by side along the creek’s length. When we turned around another copse of trees, we saw the mouth to the coal mine. A few barely legible signs laden with warnings stuck out from the ground. A rusted minecart sat at the entrance atop rusted rails. It looked like some of the rail ties had been pulled out, so I guessed I was right about the scarecrows.
I walked towards the maw of the shaft but took about three steps before I fell forward, arms pinwheeling as I tripped over one of the missing rail ties. I hit the hard ground, coughing as dust flew up around me. I never considered myself old, but I worried I might have sprained something or broken my wrist in my pitiful attempt to catch myself. Everything felt fine, except that Sara was laughing at me. I laughed and rolled onto my back. Something felt wrong, but it felt wonderful.
A rock hit my face. I sat up and noticed for the first time the low howl of wind as it escaped the coal shaft. Sara was still laughing. “Hey, are you throwing rocks?” I said. I turned to her and noticed… It’s hard to say. I noticed that she looked younger. We were about the same age, but she didn’t normally look that way.
“Aw, come on, ya big baby,” she said. She leaned over and grabbed me by the wrist, pulling me up. Everything went cloudy. She looked even younger, but we were still eye level. She looked like a child, but I couldn’t focus. Sara stepped away, shuffling her feet as she looked at the ground. “You… You wanna play tag?”
I feel myself grinning. It’s wrong, but I can’t stop it. A pretty girl like that, wanting to play with me? I shrug off my backpack and stand, already running toward her. She squeals and darts to the left, but I’m quick to follow. I smack a hand across her shoulder as I close the gap and turn quickly to throw her off. But she’s fast, faster than I thought a girl could be. There’s a loud sound behind me, and I hear her fall. Then her hand is on my ankle, and she’s pulling me down. I roll over, laughing again. I sit up and make sure my ankle is fine, then I remember to see if she’s fine. She’s laughing too, so I guess that’s all right.
Someone else laughs with us, and we both shut up. I stand up and grab Sara’s hand as we move back to the mine. It’s the kind of place I always wanted to play in. It sounds like someone’s playing in there already.
“It’s dark in there,” she says.
I look in, and, sure enough, it’s darker than I would have ever thought, darker than I’ve ever seen. “Good for hide and seek,” I say.
She laughs again. Did girls’ laughs always sound so pretty? “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“Come on,” I say.
We look in at the mine entrance, and a big wind hits us in the face. We cough and stand quiet for a minute. We listen. For a long time there’s nothing, and then someone laughs from far away.
I hold her hand tight, and we step forward.