Authors: Edward Lorn
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Dark Fantasy, #Thrillers, #Supernatural, #Horror
“Exactly. Now, if you folks will gather around the map here, I’ll show you the course we’ll take to Scooter’s Dive, the lowest point on the tour of Waverly Chasm.”
With that, the group settled in around Jaleel. Mark, the man with the camera, pushed his way to the front, snapping photo after photo of the large map.
MARK SIMMONS CLICKED THE SHUTTER release six times before he caught an image he liked on the screen of his Nikon. The picture was a high-definition snapshot of the map on the poster board. The creases of the folded map had softened and could barely be seen. Those little things, the bits no one else noticed, were what Mark coveted. There was a story in those folds. Someone had brought the map there, unfolded it, and pinned it to the board. Which way had they come to do so? The same way his group had come? A secret path through the sparse woods that surrounded them? Mark didn’t know, but he wanted to; he wanted to know
The questions were a welcome reprieve from the thoughts that clouded his brain. Being fully involved in his new story would help with forgetting the phone call he’d received from Willy and Julia. Mark was almost certain the conversation had happened post-coitus. Mark knew Julia had fucked her way into his position. The thought had occurred to him that he could just quit, but with the state of print publications and the current economy, a bad job was better than no job at all. He might have to take up blogging for an eZine before long, a concept he didn’t want to think about too hard.
“There is another place we will be stopping that isn’t on any map,” Jaleel said. Mark perked up as he turned his attention back to the guide. “Just short of Scooter’s Dive is a place I like to call Flat Rock. On our way down the trail, the pathway is kinda narrow until we reach right around…
.” The guide traced his finger along the dotted lines of the map to an unmarked area. “Right here, the path will open up to a flatter, wider section where we can rest before moving on to Scooter’s Dive. Now, when we get there, I will ask you to please stay away from the ledge, as the guard wire stops here…” He demonstrated on the map. “… and the chasm’s cliff-edge is open. The wire begins again after this section, and the trail will be safe for the duration of our journey down.”
“What’s with the open space?” Lyle asked.
Mark was shocked that the youngest of the group asked the smartest questions. Hell, even Mark wanted to know the answer to the latest one.
“Don’t know for certain. I suppose they just never got around to installing it. You know. Budget cuts.” Jaleel’s eyes flickered briefly, just enough for Mark to notice. The guide was lying. From the look on Donald’s face, the little guy had seen it, too. Mark would have to keep an eye on Jaleel. A story hid there; Mark was sure of it.
Mark flipped the power switch on his camera, and the screen went black. He checked the strap’s connecting parts before allowing gravity to take over and the camera to dangle around his neck. The last thing Mark needed was something coming loose and causing his six-thousand-dollar Nikon to go sliding into the chasm’s depths. Mark doubted Willy would sign a requisition form for another one. Given that Julia was now much closer to the man than Mark could ever become, Mark would be left cameraless. No camera meant no job. No job meant no food. Couldn’t have that. Had to feed the rotundness.
Mark started to step forward, but noticed the black girl glaring at him. Hard.
The stare was one of those uncomfortable ones where he would meet the other person’s eyes, hoping they would look away, but they didn’t. Mark held the girl’s gaze for what felt like an entire minute, even raising his eyebrows as if to ask, “What the hell?” but she never looked away. Her nametag said her name was Justine. Mark preferred to call her
She finally shrugged and shook her head before turning back to the tour guide. Mark pulled his shirt away from his belly and looked at it—no stains or anything funny. He checked his zipper—all hemmed up. So what had she been looking at? Just to be sure, he brushed a hand over his face, checking for boogers and anything wet that didn’t feel like it should be there. His hand came away clean.
. She was another one he’d have to keep his eyes on. The assignment could turn out to be one of his more interesting stories. If nothing else happened, at least he had something to work with. A dishonest tour guide and a strange group member called all different kinds of headlines to Mark’s mind.
Not to mention, the Dastardly Bastard. That one still burrowed its way through Mark’s head like a tunneling worm. The information Willy had emailed Mark had been enough of a reason to take the job, other than the obvious need for a paycheck. The document attached to the email had opened with a poem, a short nine-line rhyme that wouldn’t be out of place in a Grimm Brothers fairytale.
The Dastardly Bastard of Waverly Chasm
Does gleefully scheme of malevolent things
Beware, child fair, of what you find there
His lies, how they hide in the shadows he wears
‘Cross wreckage of bridge is where this man lives
Counting his spoils, his eye how it digs
Tread if you dare, through his one-eyed stare
This Dastardly Bastard is not what he seems
This Dastardly Bastard is not who he seems
Sure, the ending was a bit stilted, but so were most of the whimsical rhymes Mark had ever heard. He assumed one of the final lines had been lost over time. That tended to happen more often than not with such things. Like the game of Telephone, the ending message was never what the originator had intended.
The next section of the email was the electronic brochure Pointvilla Parks and Recreation gave out on their website. The information inside told of tour times, souvenirs, and restroom locations—only two, with one back at the car park and the other a chemical toilet at Scooter’s Dive.
Finally, there had been a personal line from Willy.
Mark. Don’t fuck this up. P&R guys paid for coverage. So cover it.
When Mark had read that last bit, he almost put his fist through the top of his rented Prius. By “P&R guys,” Willy had meant the Parks and Rec group that oversaw the chasm as a whole. Mark only assumed they were the same contingency that made poor Jaleel Warner tell everyone that Fairchild Lookout was sponsored by Righteous Cola. Mark thought that soda tasted of carbonated feet and balls. If state and county were that desperate for money, Mark had better make this story shine all big and pretty like. Both for himself, and Jaleel.
Justine was staring at him again. Mark still didn’t acknowledge her, only spotted her from the corner of his vision. When Jaleel began talking about continuing, Justine finally broke contact. Mark was glad; she was starting to thoroughly creep him out.
The tour guide finished up and led the group to where the trail ended and Waverly Chasm began. Mark stayed at the back behind Marsha and Lyle.
Mark was taken aback by the pressure he felt in his head as he looked out over the expanse of the opening. He raised the viewfinder of the Nikon to his eye, widened the zoom, and glassed the chasm. The massive crevasse seemed to go on forever, disappearing with the curve of the earth. He snapped off a three-burst sequence, then checked the digital display to make sure he’d gotten the shot he wanted. Bringing the camera back up, he zoned in on the hundreds of trees that lined the sheer walls, their roots reaching out from the rock face, having broken through after what could have only been decades of struggle.
Mark lowered his camera. His foot found a loose stone. He nudged it over. The rock clacked off an outcropping of rock, spinning away into the dismal void. He heard nothing else of his stone as the blackness swallowed it whole.
The pathway cut out and down in a zigzag pattern. The foot space was about four or five feet wide, plenty of space to feel comfortable in, but it might as well have been only inches to Mark. He reeled as vertigo threatened to take him over. He took a step back, not realizing he had done so, and felt his foot settle on something soft.
Someone squealed behind him, sounding like an animal caught in a trap. Mark spun around, his belly slapping the little person behind him, sending the man hurtling to the ground.
“What the hell, Tubby?” the little guy raged as he struggled to push himself up before the dust had even settled.
sorry.” Mark bent over and helped the man to his feet. “You all right?”
“I will be. You about crushed my foot, though.”
“I didn’t see you.”
“Bet you haven’t seen your dick in a while, either.”
“I said I was sorry.”
“That’s been accepted, Tubby. Now, can we move along?”
“I would appreciate it if you didn’t call me Tubby. How would you like it if I called you Squirt?”
“Wouldn’t dust my shoes, Tubbaloticus,” The little guy strode past, short arms swinging at his sides. “See ya, Tubster!”
“My name is Mark,
GIRL, YOU GOT THE SIGHT,
” Nana Penance had told Justine once upon a time.
When Nana Penance had her stroke, back when Justine was still living in Georgia and her parents were still married, Justine had seen death on her grandmother. Nana Penance had Thrown Shadows clear as day.
The fat man with the camera was Throwing Shadows. The sight chilled her down to her very core, but she shoved it to the back of her mind as she took Trevor’s hand and moved along the rocky slope of the pathway.
“You all right, baby?” Trevor asked, never really looking in her direction, his eyes on the ground before them.
“Yeah.” Justine didn’t know why she felt the need to lie. Protection, maybe? It was safer keeping her visions to herself. The less she had to explain, the less crazy she would seem. “Why?”
“You’re just quiet, is all. Not really like you.”
She was surprised he had noticed. Their nine months together had done things, big things. Somewhere along the line, they had really gotten to know each other, both in and out of the bedroom. The thought made her smile. “You notice anything funny with the camera guy?” she asked, as they avoided a sharp-looking rock sticking out on their right.
“The fat dude?”
“Quit!” She jabbed him in the arm with her knuckles. “You’re terrible. But yeah, him.”
“Nope.” Trevor pulled up his pants, but they immediately fell right back down to where they had been before he touched them.
Justine had tried to dress him properly on several occasions, but had always failed. He was a stubborn man. Sensitive and caring did not a sharp dresser make. Justine knew the only reason he dressed the way he did was because he wanted to fit in with everyone back home. Hell, if she didn’t dress the way she did, her Atlanta friends would razz her about it for days on end. Her social network needed as much of an overhaul as Trevor’s sagging apparel.
“Why?” Trevor asked, taking his eyes off the pathway long enough to look at her.
“He just seems… I don’t know…
“I don’t know, Trevor. Just not right. I don’t really know how to explain it.” But she did. She just didn’t want to sound as insane as she felt.
“Don’t let him bother you.” Trevor leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “Just enjoy the hike, or walk, or whatever I got us into here.”
She laughed. “You do pick some of the wildest places to take me. You know I’m black, right? All this camping and adventuring ain’t really what we’re known for.”
“All the more reason to try it, baby. Get some new blood in your veins!” Trevor twirled, kicking up fine gray dust in his wake.
“Whatever, fool. Behave before you end up going over the edge.”
“Cheer up. When we get back to the hotel in Bay’s End, I got another surprise in store for you. Just make it through the next five hours or so, and you’ll be one happy woman, black or not. Okay?”
Trevor slid an arm around her waist and pulled her close. Justine felt secure in his grasp, even though just two feet to her left was a drop-off so steep she could see nothing but inky shadows playing in the depths.
Stop looking, stupid
, Justine told herself.
“Did you say something?” Trevor asked, his eyes studying the footpath again.
“Nope.” Had she said her thought out loud? She didn’t think so.
She rested her cheek on Trevor’s shoulder. She could hear the heavy footfalls of the camera man coming up behind them. The steps were fast, and she could tell he was out of breath.
Slow down, big man
, Justine thought.
Don’t you go throwing any more shadows until you’re far out of my sight. Leave the heart attack for another day.
DONALD’S FOOT STILL STUNG LIKE hell where Tubby had stepped on it, and he was sure he was going to end up with a concussion from his tumble, but he forgot the pain as they rounded the next curve and the slope steepened even more. He had to be very careful. Sure, he had a lower center of gravity than the giants, but if he tripped, he’d get caught in someone’s legs, and they’d all go screaming into the chasm.
He could see it very clearly in his mind’s eye. A subtle trip, his foot catching on a jutting stone, and he would fall forward. The couple behind him would get tangled up in his flailing body, and over they would go. Tubby might even reach over to grab one of them, trying to be some kind of obese superhero in their time of need—Fatman: The Pork Knight—but his stomach wouldn’t allow it, and his girth would carry him over the steel-braided guard wire. Marsha and Lyle would reach for the overturned man’s immense calves, grabbing hold of them before finally being overcome by all that was Tubby. Then, they, too, would shoot head first into the chasm. The tour guide would try to help, diving for them with some inane thought of responsibility to act, believing he could fly. But alas, R. Kelly he was not. And then, there would be one. Lonely Donald seated on the rock face all by himself, singing an old Baptist hymn, the juxtaposition striking because he was, after all, an atheist.