[Collaborative Project with C. Willison of ImagesByCW]
“YES. THERE ARE TWO ITEMS THAT MAY CAUSE YOU SOME DISTRESS.”
“What? What is it? I thought you said Sammie was cured!”
“I WAS ABLE TO REMOVE THE PARASITES THEMSELVES, AS WELL AS ALL THE TOXINS. HOWEVER VELIAN NEMATODES CAN SOMETIMES CAUSE PERMANENT MUTATIONS IN THEIR HOST. I EVALUATED YOUR COMPANION’S IMMUNE SYSTEM, AND IT IS VERY WEAK. IT APPEARS HUMANS ARE QUITE SUSCEPTIBLE.”
“Very weak? What does that mean? How bad is that?”
“HER IMMUNE SYSTEM RATES ONLY 38 ON THE STANDARD GALACTIC IMMUNOLOGY SCALE. DID YOU COME IN CONTACT WITH THEM AS WELL?”
“Wait, me? Yes, I came in contact too, but I didn’t get sick. Well not AS sick. Could I be infected too?”
“YOU WERE NOT INFECTED BUT YOU MAY BE AFFECTED. THERE IS A DIFFERENCE. LET ME EVALUATE YOUR SYSTEM.”
“OH, DEAR, I’M AFRAID YOURS IS EVEN WORSE. YOUR RATING IS ONLY 31.”
An ominous dread filled Preston’s mind. He hated getting sick.
“Say… I’m not a doctor. What does that number mean?”
“I DO NOT WISH TO CAUSE YOU EMOTIONAL DISTRESS, SMALL HUMAN, BUT IN SAMMIE’S CASE IT MEANS SHE WILL LIKELY CONTRACT AT LEAST A MODERATE ILLNESS AS FREQUENTLY AS TWO OR THREE TIMES IN A CENTURY. AND YOU PERHAPS AS OFTEN AS FOUR TIMES.”
“Wait, did you say century?”
“YES. I DO REGRET HAVING TO INFORM YOU OF THIS.”
“That’s… actually good… for a person. That can’t be right. Most folks I know get sick a couple times a year.”
“CURIOUS. WELL, I SUPPOSE THAT EXPLAINS THE CHANGE. THIS PARASITE HAS A LONG GESTATION PERIOD, AND IT HAS TO ENSURE THE HOST LIVES LONG ENOUGH TO TRANSMIT TO ANOTHER HOST. SO APPARENTLY IT ENHANCED YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEMS TO ENSURE THAT YOU WOULD NOT DIE OF ANOTHER ILLNESS PRIOR TO THAT POINT.”
Preston was confused to say the least. After the night they’d been having, he was certainly not expecting good news. He glazed down at Sammie, who was now looking much more alert. A rosy glow was starting to return to her cheeks. But something was still bugging him. “Say, didn’t you say there were two things you had to tell me?”
“AH, YES. IT APPEARS THAT THE FOLIAGE IN THE VICINITY OF THIS CAVERN HAS COMBUSTED.”
“You mean a forest fire?”
“We need to get out of here!”
“I WOULD RECOMMEND THAT. THE SUPPORT BRACES FOR THIS CAVERN’S ENTRANCE ARE OLD AND DRY, AND IF THEY WERE TO COMBUST, THE ENTRANCE WOULD COLLAPSE.”
“What about you?”
“I HAVE EVERYTHING I NEED DOWN HERE. AND I DON’T NEED AN ENTRANCE. BUT DO TAKE THAT CONTAINER OF PARASITIC WASTE WITH YOU, AND HEAT IT ABOVE THE BOILING POINT OF WATER. THAT SHOULD BE SUFFICIENT TO DECONTAMINATE IT.”
“And the forest fire – that should burn the parasites from the trees, right?”
“MOST LIKELY. BUT DO RUN ALONG. YOUR COMPANIONSHIP IS NOT UNWELCOME, HOWEVER IF YOU WERE TRAPPED HERE THERE WOULD NOT BE SUFFICIENT RESOURCES TO SUSTAIN YOUR BIOLOGICAL FORM.”
After their whirlwind adventure, Preston hated the idea of giving it all up so abruptly. But since the alternative was being trapped forever in the old mine…
“Thank you for all your help, sir.”
“FAREWELL SMALL HUMAN.”
The way out was surprisingly easy. Sammie rapidly regained her strength, and by the time they reached the vertical shaft, she was able to climb up it on her own. Micah and Isaac seemed to return to their normal mental state as well.
They could smell smoke before they even reached the entrance to the old mine. When they emerged, a hazy smoke swirled through the air, but fortunately no sign of the fire itself. The sunrise glowed a brilliant red amid the smoke.
Micah, who seemed to have now fully recovered from her strange hypnosis, raised the first key question; “Which way is the fire?”
The mine entrance was overgrown with small brush, and the surrounding area was hilly, and did not offer a clear view in any direction. The wind was calm, and they couldn’t tell exactly which direction the fire was.
“I dunno. But we can’t stay here,” said Preston. “Should we take the old rail tracks back to town? That’s the easiest way.”
“I reckon the creek is the safest place to be,” said Sammie, who now sounded herself, even if she was still a little pale and lethargic.
“If we cut through the forest, we could get to the creek faster,” offered Isaac.
“But we could get lost. Or we could run straight into the fire.” said Micah. “Let’s take the rail bed.” She pulled Sammie to her feet, and put her right arm around her for support.
Preston put his left arm around Sammie, which as before, was a bit awkward since both she and Micah were taller than he. This time however, Sammie was much livelier and didn’t need much support. They set off at a brisk pace towards the rail bed.
“Wait!” said Preston, after they had gone scarcely 50 yards. He reached into his knapsack and fished out the jar of congealed orange goo; the residue from the alien parasites. As much as he wanted to help Sammie, he knew he had to burn it. He scanned the area, and quickly fixed his gaze on one of the larger bushes.
“Preston, what are you doing? We don’t have time for your nonsense!” yelled Micah.
“Keep going; I’ll catch up,” he said, dashing off toward the 6-foot high bush. It was on a slight rise, and although he couldn’t see the fire, the smoke burned his eyes and choked him. It was much worse up here. He could hear a dull roar in the distance; was he closer to the fire? He wedged the jar in a gnarled nook in the branches. There was no guarantee that the fire would come this way, but if it did, it would surely be enough to burn the parasites. Turning around, he was shocked to find he could no longer see his friends through the swirling haze. The orange-reddish glow: had the fire caught up to him, or was it just the effects of sunrise? He dashed back down the hill, trying to retrace his steps, but there was no path to follow, and he could only see 20 yards through the smoke.
Preston sprinted a few dozen yards back down the slope, then paused. If he could only find his way back to the mine entrance. From there he knew where the rail bed was, and that was their way out. But the smoke was suffocating, and he wasn’t sure he was going in the right direction. “Sammie? Micah? Issac?” He gasped, but there came no answer. The growing roar of the approaching flames had likely drowned out his voice. The hill was dotted with large bushes – most just taller than him, and none distinct enough to remember as a landmark.
The entity normally found the thoughts of primitive creatures to be a pleasant distraction, but this was different. So many of them were frightened or in great pain. He was able to sift through the sea of emotions; the deer, squirrels, raccoons; all manner of creatures running in panic from the flames, until he located the small human. He could tell from the minds of the creatures around him that the blaze was indeed close. The small human was fearful, but not panicked. It was a good sign. Should he communicate; tell the small human the correct direction to move? The entity deliberated for a microsecond, and decided not to. The small human was moving in approximately the right direction, and allowing him the confidence that comes from finding his way on his own was a far greater gift than reassurance. The small human had an interesting mind, and the entity hoped he would prosper in the future.
Preston tripped over a branch at full speed, and fell solidly forward, scraping both forearms and his face. The pain would have normally had him in tears, but he was in shock. He climbed to his knees and glanced at the branch that had tripped him. It was square and rotted. In an instant fear turned to hope; it was an old rail tie. He was back at the mine entrance!
Micah, Isaac and Sammie were well on their way down the rail line when Sammie realized how far behind Preston had fallen. “We have to go back for Preston.”
“We have to keep moving,” said Isaac, not knowing Sammie’s stubborn streak like Micah did.
Micah stopped and turned back in the direction of the mine. The rail bed had been carved through the surrounding hills during the mine’s heyday, and the forest was only beginning to take back its territory with sparse foliage, despite the many years since the line was abandoned. The trees at the perimeter formed a tunnel of green. A tunnel filled with swirling haze at the moment.
A figure emerged from the tunnel of smoke and embers. His clothes were torn, and he was bruised, scraped, and bleeding, but his spirit was almost as irrepressible as Sammie’s. “I’m fine, lets go.”
The old railway gave them good cover from the fire all the way to the creek. There, even Micah gave up all pretense of being proper, and plunged headlong into the stagnant, late summer waters. The four of them gazed back into the forest. There was a thin haze and they could smell smoke, but the only sound they heard was the faint trickling of the creek. Had the wind shifted again?
They stumbled into town finding it surprisingly empty. Even more surprising, the few people they encountered didn’t seem the least surprised by their filthy, disheveled appearance. A thin haze filled the air.
“Most everybody is probably out trying to fight the fire.” observed Isaac.
“Let’s go help them,” said Sammie, who by now had all her usual energy back.
“You – are going back to the house and straight to bed. You’re sick, remember?”
“No I’m not. I feel fine now.”
“Well you’re supposed to be sick. And in bed. It’s pure luck that we haven’t all been caught. And you, Preston, thanks for this cure of yours. But go home; we’ve all had enough trouble.” She turned to Issac. “And you, mister; we’ll have to postpone this for another time.” She proceeded to kiss him, causing Preston to turn away out of instinct.
“Well, I hope you’re all cured, Sammie.” he said, giving her a ginger hug. She responded with her former enthusiasm and nearly crushed his rib-cage. “I’m fine, you lunkhead, now go before someone catches us all.”
* * *
Preston glanced nonchalantly at his well-worn wooden desk and ever so slowly slid his books into his knapsack. The teacher was usually quite diligent at shooing them out of the schoolhouse, but he seemed quite distracted today, so this might finally be his chance to speak more than a passing whisper to Sammie. It had been three weeks since their ordeal, and they had all been punished rather severely. For Preston it meant that he couldn’t see Sammie, but for Sammie it meant she couldn’t see the outside of her house except when at school. Not that she would have had time, with all the extra chores she had to complete.
The room was now almost empty. Just another minute, then the teacher will be out of sight, thought Preston. He remembered the day they got back; he slept nearly the whole day, and although he didn’t get caught in the act, his smoky, tattered clothes gave him away.
He was seated as far from Sammie as could possibly be, and they were escorted to and from school – to keep them apart. So aside from seeing that she had apparently made a full recovery, and the occasional fleeting word, he had no idea what was going on with her.
She was dressed that day in a very proper, full-length, rose-colored dress, and her hair was tied neatly back with a pair of white ribbons.
“You ok Sammie?”
“I’ve done all my family’s washing for the last 3 weeks she said, showing her calloused hands. I’ve had to wear proper dresses and shoes, and if they don’t come home in perfect shape, there’s more washing and ironing.”
Preston gazed into her deep green eyes. Despite all that punishment, she seemed remarkably chipper. “So why are you so happy?”
“I feel great. And I’m getting on much better with Micah. We talk about everything now.”
Her mood did seem to dampen when Preston mentioned the odd creatures.
“I finally got out to the old mine last weekend,” said Preston. “The fire had been through there. Scorched everything ‘far as I could tell. Couldn’t find that jar, but I reckon it must have burnt.”
“Those bugs. Do you think the fire killed them all?”
“Don’t know. That whole area was blackened. So probably. I hope so; ’cause no one will believe us and we have no proof of anything.”
“How about that… stone… thing?”
“The entrance to the old mine collapsed in the fire. So we’ll never be able to see him again. But I have dreams. Maybe I’ll hear from him in my dreams.”
“We’d better get moving,” said Sammie, grabbing his hand and pulling him to his feet. “If I’m not out after class ends, Theodore will come in after me, and we’re not supposed be talking.” She hesitated a moment. “But proof or not; one thing’s for sure. Preston; you had your adventure.”
* * *
The Miltonville Mine Mystery is a creative collaborative project (fictional short story with photo illustrations) between David and Claudia Willison. We hope you enjoyed reading it as much as we enjoyed creating it.