Short Story – The Surface
I’ve been participating in an open mic night since January and one of the requirements is stories that are about 5-7 minutes in length. That translates to about 3-4 typed pages. At least once a month, that means I’m trying to write a very compact story around 1000 – 1500 words in length.
It’s a different kind of challenge. A lot of the time, I’m working with suggestion and ambiguity because I don’t have a lot of time to fully realize a world. The goal is to create the feeling there is more on the edges of the story and to give the reader/listener the opportunity to fill in some of those edges for themselves.
I feel like this would make a good series of comics. At least the ending seems to lead to something that could, I think, be explored in a more visual format.
As always, please feel free to share, comment, and give advice. Thanks for reading!
Another cave-in. Sixteen more miners were trapped far from food and water supplies. Among them were Rachael’s father and two of her sisters. Her mother would speak with them by radio several times a day to assure them someone was coming.
It was the third cave-in in two months. And yes, someone was coming. But everyone knew they most likely would never make it in time. Hand tools and strong backs could not make quick work of tons of rock.
Rachel was the youngest of five. Her three sisters were all in their twenties and could remember a time when families didn’t live in caves and the sun wasn’t something you could only occasionally glimpse though one of the few skylights that had been bored to the surface.
Mining was essential for fuel and power. It was also dangerous and growing more dangerous with each passing year. Her father and sisters accepted the risks given all families were expected to provide labor to keep the power running.
Rachael didn’t accept any of it. She didn’t understand why they had to live in the cave. She didn’t understand why they had to take so many risks. She didn’t understand why the only answer anyone could give when she asked about her brother was “he’s on the surface.”
On the fourth day, they were almost out of food and water and the rescue party was still at least a week away. Mother was crying and her sister Penelope was trying to explain what was going to happen next.
“I don’t understand! Why are they going to die now? I thought they had more food!” Rachael cried.
“Yes, they do,” Penelope agreed, “but as I said, they have to do this before they are too weak.”
Rachael may have only been twelve but she could tell when someone was avoiding a question.
“I told you. They can’t die of natural causes. They have to…”
And here Penelope began to choke on her own words. Plead as she might, Rachael could get nothing more from her.
A few hours later, she was talking to her father on the radio. He sounded so close. He sounded like the stone that separated them was just a few feet instead of a few hundred.
“Listen to me baby,” he said, “you and Penelope have got to take care of your mother, you understand.”
“Why can’t you come back?” she asked again.
“I told you. They can’t reach us. And we can’t take a chance that someone will someday forget were are here and dig us out.”
A loud cracking noise rang through on the speaker.
“What was that?”
“Nothing honey. You remember my friend Clyde Jordan?”
“He’s done what needed to be done.”
“I don’t know what that means!”
“Someday you will. Now put your mother back on.”
“No,” she shouted, “if I stay on this radio, you can’t die! You have to keep talking to me. You wouldn’t stop talking to me to die, would you?”
His voice was calm, but forceful. It was the voice he used when it was time for her to do as he asked.
“Put your mother back on, baby.”
Rachael watched as her mother spoke in hushed tones to her father and sisters. Penelope made her stay far away so she couldn’t hear what they were saying. It was supposed to be private.
Mother was sobbing and could barely say anything at all. Even from a distance, Rachael could hear a few more cracking noises. After one of them, mother dropped the radio and put her head in her hands, her shoulders heaved. Tears began to streak down Penelope’s face as well. She ran over to her mother and the two women embraced and wept.
Rachael wanted to run to them too. But instead, she ran the other way.
She ran to a spot she had found once when she went exploring in a tunnel everyone said was off limits. After she’d been found, they posted guards there. But even the guards had families and some of those family members were about to die.
After running for about ten minutes, she found the gate. There was a sign that was slowly rusting in the damp air of the cave. It said “To the surface: No entry.”
The gate was chained shut but she was small and she felt certain she could squeeze between the bars. With some effort, she pushed through and ran up the stairs. Behind her, she could hear Penelope calling her name.
At the top of the stairs was a heavy metal door that was locked from the inside. It was barred and chained with heavy, solid padlocks. She couldn’t open the door completely, but she could possibly pry it open just enough to squeeze through.
Penelope shouted up the stairs at her. “Bridget! You need to come back down here right now!”
“NO!” the headstrong girl replied, “I’m tired of living down here! I want to go outside!”
“The surface is not for us.”
“The who is it for? Is it for daddy?”
“No. It isn’t for him. He made sure of that.”
“I don’t understand! I want to see for myself!”
As she spoke, she removed the heavy steel bar and twisted the handle. She was able to pull the door open just enough for light to spill in from outside.
The light was brighter than anything should remember seeing. She had to shield her face with her arm.
Below, Penelope could see the light.
“God, Rachael. Tell me you didn’t get the door open!”
“I’m going out!” Rachael cried back triumphantly.
She turned to the light and saw a shadow move in front of it. And then another. As her eyes adjusted, she could see grey figures with blood red eyes staring back at her. Hands with sharp nails reached in through the door. She screamed and backed away but they almost seemed to stretch the further she retreated.
One of the claws very nearly touched her when her sister, who had somehow forced her way through the gate, came charging up the stairs, firing a gun as she came. The hands moved away from the door and Penelope reached forward to push it back in place. As she did, a claw reached around and grabbed her by the arm. She let out a painful scream but kept pushing at the door.
Another claw grabbed her arm. And another. They were violently trying to pull her outside and she was more and more meekly trying to resist. Finally she looked at her little sister.
“Rachael, you’ll only have a few seconds to shut this door. Don’t hesitate, do you hear me?”
“What will happen to you?” Rachael wailed, “What are they going to do to you?”
Penelope smiled as she held the pistol to her head.
“Nothing. The surface is for the dead, Rachael.”
The gun went off and Penelope’s limp body was pulled through the crack in an instant.
Rachael pushed the door shut and brought the bar down before the creatures could finish devouring the body of her sister.
She thought of that moment ten years later when she stood at the door again, clad in armor, wielding a sword in one hand, and a gun in the other, about to lead over one hundred young men and women back into the light.
The surface was for the living.