By J.L. FecarottaCopyright © 2023
That’s right folks – Ryan and I finished another NYC Midnight Contest – Short story! This one was super-fun since my newly certified editor (and my wife) did a GREAT job editing. You never know how these things are going to go, but I have a good feeling about this one.
I hope you enjoy this story! Genre is Suspense 🙂
I never realized how important Projector Man was until this very moment, trapped in this pit, entombed in a darkness so profound that only by closing my eyes do I see any light. People call it the Mind’s Eye, but I prefer Projector Man, a little hobgoblin who waits for his chance to cast his special show—a myriad of luminous clouds, floating and sparkling. Occasionally, with some effort, I’m allowed to conjure comforting images—my departed mother, God rest her soul, my sisters Victoria and Christine, my sons Patrick and John, and of course my beloved Diane; her wispy red hair and freckled cheeks flicker on the screen of my closed eyelids. But Projector Man resists, yearning to return me to his shimmering, formless fog.
To my great surprise the next person that appears is a grandmotherly woman with tight white curls, red cheeks, and energetic blue eyes enlarged by thick, ornate glasses. One of her eyebrows is raised: “Mr. Byrne, phobias are a condition, not a moral failing. You simply need to focus on action!” Dr. Barbara Wojciechowski is one of those fancy brain doctors from Europe who help people with mental problems.
I should never have taken this job. The scene shifts to what was one of my proudest moments, the day my boss, owner of O’Leary Construction, promoted me to foreman. Patrick had been at my wedding, knew me from childhood. I trusted him, so I told him my secret, begging, “Pat, please don’t put me in the dark.” It was my only request. Now, ten years later, I’m a senior foreman, and he springs this project on me, a sad smile on his face, “You’re my best foreman, Tom. I know a doctor lady who can help with your little situation.”
A lot of good those few months with Dr. W is doing for me now. I can’t “gain my calm” as she had exhorted me to do during our long sessions in her darkened office. I laugh aloud into the blackness. “I, Thomas Byrne, will die in this hole because I’m afraid of the dark!”
Why did my crew set off that dynamite? For heaven’s sake, wasn’t I clear in my instructions? None of my lads have answered my screams. Are any of them alive? Am I alone down here?
I recite Dr. W’s words for the hundredth time, trying to believe them, calling them out into the cold abyss. “Darkness is nothing to fear. It’s simply the absence of light.”
Dr. W had concluded, after hearing my story, that I had a cluster of phobias based on my rough upbringing. Admittedly, growing up in Belfast was not easy, and sure, I took my share of beatings, but we all did. Now just over four decades old, I find myself as fearful as when I had been as a schoolchild—afraid of bugs, afraid of snakes, but most of all, afraid of small, dark places.
For years I’ve been able to dodge my fears, to hide my truth. Construction work is in the light, outdoors, in the open. But then this damn tunnel project came along, the biggest contract ever awarded in the state, and of course my company won it. If word got out—the Big Irishman was afraid of the dark—I’d never live it down and would likely never work again. I wasn’t going to embarrass my family or besmirch the Byrne name.
The job was simple really—blast a tunnel through a mountain so the new highway could go through it instead of over a dangerous pass. I had managed to stay out of the tunnel, a perk of being the foreman. But there were times when it had been necessary. I had twenty years on most of them, and placing the dynamite was no mean task. I know where to blow, where to support the structure, where to walk, where to stand. I had been inspecting a newly bored area of the tunnel when I heard the blast. A pit had opened below me instantly, the mountain swallowing me whole, plunging me into darkness.
Panic raises like the ocean in my heart. A scene, unbidden, takes over my mind. Eyes open or closed, I cannot stop Projector Man: I’m a boy, back in Belfast…I’m getting kicked, hard in the stomach. Suddenly I’m in the trunk of their car. Why are they doing this? Now I’m out in the darkness! The coldest, darkest of nights. Bugs, and vermin crawl over me. I must slip out of these bonds!
I open my eyes, shake my head, and repeat Dr. W’s words aloud. “I’m not in Belfast anymore. There are no gangs here. I’m not ten years old.”
My heart seems to calm after too many minutes, my eyes beginning to adjust. This is no pit; it’s a cave. They have collapsed the tunnel upon me, but it’s not over yet. I can move. All I hear is my own heart, and the drip, drip, drip of water I can’t see. The air smells of sulfur—dusty and dank, and the cold is beginning to do its work on my extremities. There isn’t much time. I have to muster the courage to move.
Dr. W’s voice echoes in my mind. “We all carry wounds from our past, soft spots in our psyche. Remember, darkness is just a place, my friend. It’s merely the absence of light.”
I repeat her mantras, gather myself, and slowly back into the nearest wall. The dripping seems to get louder, and my head feels wet. Is that water or blood? I taste it. Iron-like, warm, but still impossible to tell. I continue feeling my way around the space, hoping to find a gap.
I hear movement and a large splash. My mind races, imagining what it might be. Fear grabs at my heart, but I push back, forcing an image of my own—Patrick and John hugging me around my waist after a long day’s work, despite my filthy clothing. I can almost feel their embrace.
I determinedly resume my search, one arm on the back wall, the other flailing about in the dark. What is that pressure on my arm? It feels warm, and it’s moving! Towards my face! I can barely make out tiny ears and a nose when I hear the squeak! My scream hurts my chest, pain radiating from my heart to my back, as if the organ was trying to escape my body. I hear a splash, and the beastie is gone.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Tears fall from my face. “Projector Man, show me something!” I call out, slamming my lids shut. I see the starry blobs again, but now they’re accompanied by a voice.
Fear doesn’t serve you. Think. Think about the rats.
I breathe like Dr. W told me to as I imagine Diane’s face. Breathe. Breathe.
Of course! If rats could get in, then they could get out. I simply need to find their route. I move more rapidly now, but I struggle to maintain my balance, slipping on the submerged detritus.
More steps, then something solid catches my leg and sends me into the freezing, muddy water. The large fragment of what feels like a stout wooden beam is sticking out of the water, slanted at a steep upward angle. Can I climb this to safety? Is this the vermin’s route out of this infernal pit?
The darkness is no more relenting, and the drips are ever louder. Climbing is action.
I hug the beam like a tree branch, shimmying up slowly, with one hand stretching out in front. A squeak and squeal—another rat is on my head! I cry out into the darkness as I slip off the beam and plunge back into the dark water, mud and rock cruelly tearing at my skin.
The beam remains steady. I grab it and continue up again, undaunted. I swing my arm frantically in front of me, warding off the scurvy rats. Hope blooms in my chest as I shimmy farther.
The dripping becomes a trickle. Now a flow. Is that light that I see, ever so faint?
I’ve reached the end of the beam. I can go no farther—wood, rock, and steel have blocked my escape. I push, but it is too heavy. Use your legs. I wedge myself between the beam and the ceiling, legs facing up, back against the beam, and push with all my might.
A split second too late, Projector Man shows me the image of a massive pool of water bearing down on me, a possible downside of my action. Perhaps the dripping water is telling a different story than that of freedom.
A great cracking and snapping shatters my ears, and I am once again tumbling down, debris smashing into my face and body followed by a torrent of icy mountain water that takes my breath away.
I have brought more of the tunnel in upon myself. Yet, there is now a thin beam of light entering the cave. I squint, aware that my available space has grown smaller. My leg is pinned by something I can’t see. Water is up to my torso and still flowing in.
I scream at the small beam of light, but the air from my constricted chest can barely raise the sound of my voice over the babbling water. My arms are free, though my right hand isn’t working properly. I can see from only one eye.
I feel a large log float up against me. As it moves into the light, I see the awful truth. This is no log but a man, my crewman—face down, dead! I swing wildly at the rats upon him and turn his body over. Already grotesque from the water and his injuries, Theo, one of my best workers, seems to stare at me. His neck is twisted. Life had left him immediately.
My world is spinning. There are more rats trying to evade the water. To find safe passage, they dart over my head and arms. I can’t keep them off Theo or me.
Panic strikes me motionless again, and all I can hear is my heart beating in my chest.
I focus my mind on the voices of those I trust. First Diane—”Thomas, hold my hands. Breathe. You know it helps if you are simply breathing.”
Next, Dr. W—”Mr. Byrne, fear will not aid you. Only action!”
My heart flutters and I fail to gain back any pattern to my breath. Broken, I cry out, “Please Lord, take me now! I cannot take this pain and terror. Why do you torture me to the grave so? Was I not your good and humble servant? Did I commit such atrocities that you would bring me to such a bitter end?”
Projector Man shows more lights. This time Something speaks but without a voice.
In darkness or in light you are not alone.
The water is up to my neck. I lift my head, arched as far as I can, the cavern now filled with water. The rats also panic, floating around me. In a way, I sympathize with them. We are all in the same situation, made even by circumstance, entirely without answers, struggling futilely against an ambivalent universe.
This isn’t your time.
I suck up all the remaining air left to me, plunge my head down into the water, and open my eyes. The small flicker of light is just enough to show me my leg and its captor, a large piece of wood wedged between rocks. Dead rats float about, but terror does not grip my heart. I will not let it!
My leg has no feeling until pulling at it sends a flash of pain that rocks my mind. Projector Man plays a brilliant array of red and white and purple. Eyes open again. A rat carcass swirls downward around my trapped leg. Air pleads to be released from my lungs, my last bit of breath on this planet.
Understand what you are seeing.
It’s a drain. That water is going somewhere!
I yank the largest rock I can find, and with all my might I slam at the space around my leg. I pound as hard as I can, though it feels like a child’s tap to me. No momentum, no strength is left in my arms. I close my eyes and slam the rock bed one last time, striking my lame leg. Pain beyond pain, Projector Man sets off a brilliant display of fireworks, mostly red, and then fades his theater to black.
So bright! How can there be so much light with my eyes closed? Yet, if this is Heaven, why would I close my eyes?
I open my one functioning eye, revealing not Heaven but the bottom of a ravine. I look down to see my foot pointing in the wrong direction. I am floating on my back. A stretcher. But how? Smiling faces appear above me, all younger than my own. My crew! Young, beautiful people who care about me. They saved me. What do I owe them but everything?
The river courses next to me, loud, bold, and unchanged. I turn my head upward, and many feet above is a gaping, dripping hole in the side of the mountain. The weakened mountainside had opened, unable to hold me and the heavy mountain water, the rock and wood, and poor Theo. The mountain had spit me out, like a bad piece of meat, directly into the river.
The light grows yellow as the sun sets, and the crew brings me slowly up the mountain face. There is an ambulance, and soon I am being driven somewhere.
Though my body is riddled with pain, a smile creeps upon my face. Projector Man shows another clip, some of his best work—my boys and I throwing the baseball around while Diane is finishing up her special treat, apple pie. Yet this time I didn’t need his help. I can tell my sons about what I uncovered in that dark hellhole, a truth that melts the dark apocalypse that we all face. It is a simple idea, if you can accept it: no matter how dark it gets, we are never, ever alone if we simply listen.