Hunter of Legends Preview

 
 

Prologue

 

Taylor watched as his wife Neesha rappelled down the dark, narrow vertical shaft, a natural extension of the cave far above. Plunging over a hundred feet into the earth, the shaft ended in a small cavern below. He was standing at the bottom of it, having gone down first. He made sure to shine his flashlight just below her, so that she could see where she was going.

“You okay?” he asked as she continued downward. At a faster pace than he had, he noted with dismay. She smirked at him.

“Better than you were,” she replied. Five foot one, with chocolate-colored skin and big, beautiful eyes, she was a sight to behold. He’d been damn lucky to find her…and even luckier that she’d said “yes” so many years ago.

“Show-off,” he grumbled. Neesha reached the bottom, disconnecting her harness from the rope. She brushed past him, checking him with her shoulder as she did so. He stumbled to the side, catching her smirking as she strode forward through the small cavern beyond. Lanterns had already been set up in the cavern by her grad student, Marc. Taylor spotted a small tunnel ahead, extending beyond the cavern.

“Let’s go,” Neesha prompted, striding toward the tunnel. Taylor followed behind, admiring his wife’s well-shaped buttocks as she walked. An amateur powerlifter, her posterior was damn-near perfect…and she knew it.

“Yes ma’am,” he mumbled.

“I know you’re staring at my ass,” Neesha said, not even bothering to turn around.

“Can you blame me?”

“Not really,” she conceded. “Come on baby, try to focus on your work.”

“Right now,” he replied, “…I’m focusing on what I’ll be doing after work.”

“Dirty boy,” she murmured. But the way she said it, he could tell she was smiling.

They continued down the tunnel, using their flashlights to illuminate the way ahead. After a few minutes, the tunnel opened up into another small cavern. Lanterns lit the cavern as before, and two men were standing by the far wall, talking to each other. They stopped in mid-conversation, turning to face Taylor and Neesha.

“Oh, hey professors,” one of the men greeted. It was Marc; tall and lanky, he was the best archaeology grad student Neesha had ever had. The shorter, beefier man beside Marc was Corey, a linguistics grad student.

“What you got?” Neesha asked, stopping before the two men. Marc turned to the wall before them. It was mostly composed of rough granite. But in the far-left side of the wall was a thick black stripe of rock extending from the floor to the ceiling, its surface perfectly smooth save for small symbols carved into its surface. The stripe curved slightly as it went upward, vanishing into the ceiling above.

 “I’m not sure,” Marc admitted. “We’ve been excavating this thing for the last few days.”

“Do you recognize the symbols?” Taylor asked. Corey shook his head.

“They’re not like anything I’ve ever seen,” he confessed. “And they didn’t match anything on the databases I searched.”

“Interesting,” Neesha murmured. She reached out with one gloved hand, touching the black stone. It was obvious that Marc had spent a great deal of effort digging to the right of it, a large dent in the wall present there. “Keep digging.”

“Yes professor,” Marc replied. He grabbed a pickaxe, and Neesha and Taylor backed away. Marc got to work, swinging the pickaxe at the wall, without much effect. After a few swings, Neesha stopped him.

“Let me do it,” she stated, grabbing the pickaxe from him. Marc stepped back, and Neesha planted her feet, then swung the pickaxe in one smooth motion, slamming it into the wall. The rock crumbled with the force of the blow, and Neesha swung again, the muscles in her arms rippling, striking the wall a second time. This time a hole appeared in the wall, about the size of a fist. Inky blackness lay beyond.

“Damn,” Corey breathed, staring at Neesha in admiration. Taylor grinned.

“Yeah,” he replied. “My wife’s a badass.”

Neesha lowered the pickaxe, peering through the hole, using her flashlight to illuminate what lay beyond.

“What do you see?” Taylor asked.

“There’s another chamber beyond,” she answered. “I can’t get a good look at it yet. We need to widen this hole.” She handed the pickaxe to Marc. “Come on buttercup, put some muscle into it.”

“What muscle?” Corey quipped. Marc rolled his eyes, but got to work, widening the hole swing by swing. After a few minutes, the hole was large enough to fit a leg through. Taylor took over, taking a few swings himself. No stranger to lifting weights, he was in almost as good shape as his wife. He made quick work of the wall, broadening the hole. When he tired, Neesha took over, making them all look bad, as usual.

“Not bad for being eleven weeks pregnant, eh?” Taylor quipped, taking Neesha’s phone out of her back pocket and snapping a few pictures. Then he grinned at the guys. Marc and Corey just watched her work, no doubt feeling utterly emasculated.

When Neesha dropped the pickaxe at last, the hole was large enough for her to squeeze through. Taylor peered into it, seeing nothing but blackness beyond.

“I can’t see much,” he said.

“I’ll squeeze through, Neesha offered. Being the shortest of them, it was the most logical choice. Taylor nodded, and Neesha stepped through the hole, vanishing into the darkness. Moments later, her head poked through. “Marc, get me a couple of lanterns.”

“Yes professor,” Marc replied, retrieving a few and handing them to her. She vanished from sight again, and a long moment passed.

“Holy shit,” they heard Neesha blurt out.

“Hon, you okay?” Taylor asked. A few seconds later, he saw Neesha’s head poke back through the hole. She gestured for them to follow.

“Come on,” she urged. “You’ve got to see this!”

Taylor gestured for Marc to go in first, followed by Corey. Then he stepped through the hole, barely squeezing past the narrow opening. He straightened up, then froze, his eyes widening. There, illuminated by the lanterns, was a tunnel running left to right. A huge tunnel. The ceiling was over twenty feet high, the walls curving inward in a perfect upside-down U-shape. To the right, the tunnel ended abruptly in an irregular rock wall. To the left…

“Holy shit,” he blurted out.

There, not five feet from where he stood, stood a perfect half-ring of black stone. Extending from the floor to the ceiling, the stone was maybe three feet in width. It curved to form an arch twenty feet tall, matching the curve of the ceiling perfectly. Small symbols were carved into the arch along its entire length, much as they’d seen before. And while the tunnel ended at the arch, it was not with a stone wall. Rather, there was utter blackness.

“I know, right?” Neesha stated.

“What the hell is that?” Corey asked. Neesha shook her head.

“I have no idea,” she admitted. Corey frowned.

“I thought you were one of the best archaeologists in the country,” he said. Neesha nodded, not even looking at him. She was staring at the massive archway.

“I am.”

“So am I,” Taylor reminded them.

“Do you recognize any of these symbols?” Marc asked Corey. Corey walked up to the ring, peering at the symbols carved into the jet-black stone. Then he shook his head.

“Afraid not.”

“Look at the walls,” Neesha said, gesturing at the curved rock walls around them. Marc’s eyebrows furrowed.

“What about them?”

“They’re perfectly smooth,” Taylor answered for Neesha, walking up to one of the walls and running a gloved hand across it. The granite was as polished and smooth as a countertop. As was the ceiling…but not the floor.

“This is so weird,” Marcus murmured, running his own hand over the wall. He turned back to the giant arch, and the utter blackness beyond it. Neesha was staring at that blackness, her flashlight pointed right at it.

“Guys,” she called out, pointing at the darkness. “Check this out.”

“What?” Taylor asked, walking up to her side.

“Shine your flashlight at the floor past the ring,” she ordered. Taylor complied. No light penetrated the blackness…no hint of a rocky floor beyond, no tunnel walls. Only blackness.

“Weird,” Taylor murmured.

“It’s not reflecting any light either,” Neesha noted. Marcus frowned, walking up to the inky wall of black and reaching out with one gloved finger. It touched the surface of the blackness, stopping there.

“It’s hard,” he stated, running his hand down its surface. “It’s a wall.”

“A wall that doesn’t reflect any light?” Taylor asked. “That doesn’t make any sense.” He’d heard of materials that could absorb any light that shined on them, but they were incredibly high-tech, made of carbon nanotubes ten thousand times smaller than a human hair. Certainly not something that would be found in a cave.

“How old do you think this thing is?” Marcus asked Neesha.

“I have no idea,” she admitted. She looked at the black stone bordering the darkness, peering at the symbols. “The first step is to figure out these symbols.” She grabbed her smartphone from Taylor, taking some pictures.

“The walls are made of granite,” Marc observed. “But I don’t think the arch itself is.”

“What makes you say that?” Taylor asked. Marc gave a sheepish smile.

“I may have hit it by accident a few times when I was trying to make that hole earlier,” he admitted. “Before you guys came.” He shook his head. “The pickaxe bounced right off. Didn’t even make a scratch on it.”

“Really?” Taylor pressed. “A full swing?” Marc nodded.

“I hit it pretty damn hard,” he confirmed. “Not a scratch. It rang like metal.”

“If it’s made of metal,” Neesha stated, continuing to take pictures, “…then building it would’ve involved smelting and molding. South Americans had that capability maybe two and a half thousand years ago.”

“You mean the Mocha,” Marc deduced. Neesha nodded.

“But they were in Peru,” she added. “Smelting wasn’t used in North America in pre-Columbian times.”

“So you’re saying this is at most what, five hundred years old?” Corey asked. Neesha shrugged. “That doesn’t make sense,” Corey protested. “These symbols aren’t like anything I’ve ever seen.”

“Interesting,” Taylor murmured. He stared at the giant black arch, then glanced at Neesha. She’d finished taking pictures, and was staring at the pure black wall it surrounded. “What are you thinking?”

“That we have a lot of work to do,” she answered. “We need to excavate this whole thing,” she added. “We’re going to need more people to do that.”

“We could call in the MCX-CMAC,” Taylor offered. That was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections. Neesha glared at him.

“Day one and you’re ready to bring the damn government in,” she grumbled. “No thanks.”

“Just a thought,” Taylor stated. “They have better toys than we do.”

“Think of something else,” Neesha shot back.

Corey grabbed one of the lanterns by the hole they’d created in the granite wall, bringing it up to the inky black wall. Again, no light reflected off of its surface. He put one gloved hand on the wall, sliding it side to side.

“It’s so smooth,” he murmured. “And cold.”

“We are in a cave,” Neesha reminded him. “It’s fifty degrees in here.”

“Yeah, but it’s colder than the arch,” Corey countered.

“Probably just a better conductor of heat,” Taylor ventured. Corey hesitated, then took off his glove, placing his bare hand on the black wall.

It passed right through.

“What the…” he exclaimed. His hand had vanished into the wall, up to his wrist. Beyond his wrist, there was only blackness…as if he’d dipped his hand into a pool of black liquid. But no ripples appeared on the wall’s surface.

“Woah,” Taylor blurted out. “How in the hell…?”

“It went right through,” Corey stated in disbelief, staring at his exposed wrist. “Like it wasn’t even there!”

“But you just put your hand on it earlier,” Marc protested. “It was solid.”

“Well it isn’t now,” Corey countered. He dipped his arm further in, until it was up to the elbow. “Weird,” he stated. “It feels cold at my elbow, but I can’t feel anything past that.” He concentrated for a moment. “I can’t even feel my hand,” he added. “It’s like it isn’t even there.”

“Really?” Marc asked.

“Yeah,” Corey replied. “In fact, I…” He frowned then.

“What?” Marc pressed. Corey grimaced.

“My arm’s stuck,” he answered. “I’m trying to pull it out, but it won’t come.”

“What do you mean it won’t come?” Neesha pressed, taking one more picture, then lowering her phone.

“I’m pulling on it,” Corey replied. He jerked his whole shoulder back, but still his arm remained elbow-deep in the inky blackness. Neesha set her phone down on the ground, then walked up behind him, grabbing his shoulders and pulling backward.

He didn’t budge.

“Hold on,” Neesha stated. She grabbed Corey around his flanks, planting her feet wide and pulling backward. Her arm muscles tensed, the veins at her temples bulging with the effort. But still, his elbow remained stuck. She let go, beads of sweat glittering on her forehead.

“Well shit,” she swore. She glanced at Taylor. “Want to lend me a hand?”

“Uh guys,” Corey interjected. “My arm…”

They turned to look at Corey’s arm, and saw that his elbow was no longer visible. He was up to his mid-bicep in the wall now.

“Damn,” Neesha swore. “Don’t put your arm any further in.” Corey shook his head.

“I didn’t.”

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty damn sure,” he insisted. He tugged again at his arm, then stopped, staring at it for a moment. His face paled. “Aw, shit!”

“What?”

“It’s being pulled in!” Corey exclaimed. Taylor stared at the student’s arm, realizing that he was right. As Taylor watched, Corey’s arm sank slowly but steadily into the wall.

“You’re not leaning into it?” Neesha pressed.

“No, I’m not fucking leaning into it,” Corey retorted, panic rising in his voice. “Pull me out!”

“Grab his waist on the left,” Neesha ordered, nodding at Taylor. “I’ll get the right. Marc, you pull his shoulders from behind.”

“Got it,” Taylor stated. He wrapped his arms around Corey’s waist, as did Neesha. He planted his feet, then pulled backward, as did Marc. They strained, but it was no use…Corey didn’t budge. In fact, he’d been pulled in even further; he was up to his shoulder now.

“Come on guys!” Corey shouted. “Get me out!”

“Grab his legs,” Neesha ordered. “Pull him by his legs!”

Taylor grabbed Corey’s left leg, and Neesha tore off her gloves, grabbing his right leg. They lifted Corey’s legs off of the ground, leaning backward and pulling as hard as they could.

Nothing.

“Damn it,” Neesha swore.

“Guys!” Corey yelled. His shoulder passed through the wall, his upper chest sinking slowly into the blackness. His face was only inches away from the inky surface now. He jerked his head backward. “Guys!”

“Pull damn it!” Neesha shouted. She heaved backward, and Taylor followed suit, straining as hard as he could. Sweat trickled down his forehead, stinging his eyes, his biceps burning. But it was no use.

Corey screamed as the right side of his face touched the blackness, as it was pulled inexorably inward.

Then his eyes rolled in the back of his head, and his left arm and leg began to jerk uncontrollably. Taylor’s grip on Corey’s leg slipped, and he stumbled backward, falling onto his butt on the stone floor.

“Come on!” Neesha urged, yanking on Corey’s leg again. “Marc, help me!” Marc rushed up to Corey’s still-spasming leg, trying to grab it. But he was kicked in the chest, and nearly fell backward as well. Neesha swore, grabbing both of Corey’s legs and leaning backward, the muscles of her arms going taut.

The left side of Corey’s head was sucked into the blackness, his right leg starting to jerk uncontrollably as well, yanking Neesha forward. She stumbled, letting go of Corey’s legs and falling onto her belly on the ground.

“Neesha!” Taylor cried, rushing to her side. “You okay?”

“Grab him!” Neesha shouted, struggling to get on her hands and knees. Taylor grabbed one of Corey’s legs, realizing the man’s head had passed through the blackness, his chest now being sucked into it. He was being drawn in faster now, the darkness greedily consuming him.

“Shit,” Taylor swore, pulling backward as hard as he could. But it was no use…Corey’s upper body vanished through the wall, his waist passing through rapidly, and then his upper legs. When Corey’s knees passed through, Taylor let go, backing away from the wall quickly.

Corey’s legs sucked into the wall, then his feet, the blackness swallowing him whole.

“Well shit,” Neesha swore. Taylor stared at the spot where Corey had been, unable to believe his eyes.

“What the hell just happened?” he asked.

“Babe,” Neesha said.

“I can’t believe he just…”

“Babe!” Neesha repeated, louder this time. Taylor looked down at her. She was on her hands and knees near the wall, staring at her left hand.

The tip of her index finger was touching the wall.

Taylor rushed to her side, dropping to his knees. His blood went cold.

“Can you pull it out?” he asked. Neesha ignored the question.

“Get out your knife,” she ordered. Taylor stared at her blankly. She glared at him. “Your knife!” He hesitated, then reached for his belt, for the hunting knife there. He unsheathed it. Neesha twisted to the side, exposing her stuck finger.

“What do you…”

“Cut it off,” Neesha ordered.

“What?”

“Cut my finger off,” she clarified, her voice icy calm. He just stared at her. She grabbed the knife from his hand, then pressed the blade against her index finger, just beyond the last knuckle.

“Babe!”

“Shut up,” she commanded. Her jaw rippled, and she slid the blade across her finger, blood welling up immediately, the skin parting easily. Yellow fat was exposed beneath, blood pouring out of the wound. She bit back a scream, sawing into her own flesh. The sound of metal grating on bone echoed through the large tunnel.

And then her finger began to pull into the wall.

“Babe…” Taylor repeated. But Neesha ignored him, biting back another scream, sawing faster. Blood began spurting out in regular intervals, spraying the blade and Neesha’s other hand. Marc backed away, his face turning deathly pale, and promptly vomited.

“God damn it!” Neesha shouted.

“What?”

“I hit the goddamn wall with my goddamn knife!” she exclaimed. She was right; the tip of the knife had plunged into the wall. She pulled on it frantically, but it didn’t budge.

“Move your finger against the blade,” Taylor offered. Neesha glared at him.

“I can’t move my finger!”

“Can you move the blade at all?” he pressed.

“No,” she answered. She leaned back, jerking her left arm from the wall. Her partially-severed finger continued to spurt blood, but it held. “Oh come on!”

Then the finger pulled further into the blackness, the wounded part vanishing beyond it.

“Marc, do you have a knife?” Taylor asked. Marc fumbled through his equipment, then shook his head. Taylor swore, turning back to Neesha. Her finger was now entirely engulfed by the blackness, her knuckles dipping into the void. “Baby, grab my hand,” he said, reaching out to her. She swatted his hand away.

“Get back,” she ordered. Taylor stared at her uncomprehendingly.

“What?”

“Get away from the wall,” she clarified. “You can’t get trapped too.”

“Babe, we have to…”

“You’re not getting me out,” she interrupted, her tone harsh. “You need to be there for our son.”

“We can still…”

“I love you hon,” she said, reaching out and touching his cheek. She gave him a smile. “I’ll always love you.”

 “Baby, no!” Taylor insisted, grabbing her hand and pulling it back, trying to pull her free. It was no use…the blackness consumed her, pulling her in past the wrist now. Her forearm vanished, then her elbow.

“Let go babe,” Neesha requested, her tone gentler. Her shoulder passed through, her head only inches from the wall now.

“No,” Taylor shot back, his vision blurring as tears welled up in his eyes. “No baby, no.”

“Take care of our son,” she insisted. “He can’t lose both of us.”

“Baby, please…”

“Kiss me,” she demanded. He hesitated, then leaned in, pressing his lips against hers. He felt the soft crush of her lips, smelled the sweetness of her breath, of her skin. That intoxicating scent that meant everything was going to be okay…that he was home.

She pushed him away, staring into his eyes.

“Goodbye love,” she murmured, smiling at him again, tears dripping down her cheeks.

And then the back of her head passed into the darkness.

“No!”

Her face stiffened, her eyes rolling into the back of her head. Her arm spasmed, then her legs, convulsing rhythmically. Her face passed through the blackness, then her right shoulder, her arm sucking inward rapidly. Her hand reached out for him, her fingers spreading wide.

And then she was gone.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

Hunter sighed, drumming his fingers on his desk, glancing up as a young woman got up from her chair, walking up to the teacher's desk and handing in her test. It was Tiffany, easily the hottest white girl in school. She had the kind of body that kept a guy up at night…in more ways than one. Tall, slender, with a cute butt and long, luscious golden hair, she was like a magnet for the eyes…and his eyes tracked her as she walked back to her chair from Mr. Stanson’s desk, sitting down.

God damn, he thought.

He glanced at the clock on the wall; it’d been over twenty minutes since he’d finished the exam, being the first to do so, as usual. He’d always been pretty good at tests, even if he didn’t know the material that well. A gift he’d gotten from his father…one of the few.

Hunter sighed, drumming his fingers on his desk. There were still another ten minutes left before class ended, unfortunately. His mind wandered, and he found himself staring at Tiffany again. Not only was she easy on the eyes, she was also one of the nicest people he’d ever met.

Man, he mused. What I wouldn’t give to be with her.

Fat chance of that ever happening, of course. He’d pined after Tiffany for years now, always from afar, never quite having the guts to ask her out on the rare occasions that she’d been single. And she certainly wasn’t single now; she was already taken, dating a dumb jock in class called Tyler. But hey, a guy could dream…and he planned on doing just that later on tonight. Among other things.

More students got up to pass in their exams, and eventually the bell rang, signaling the end of class. A tall, muscular guy in the back row hurried up to Mr. Stanson’s desk to drop off his test, and Hunter found with no small amount of satisfaction that it was Tyler, Tiffany’s boyfriend. The jerk was usually the last to finish. God only knows how he managed to stay on the football team with his lousy grades.

The teacher dismissed the class, and Hunter got up, walking toward the exit. But his teacher gestured for him to come up to the front desk. Hunter hesitated, watching the last of the students leave, then walked up to the desk.

“What’s up?” he asked. Mr. Stanson, a short, middle-aged man with reading glasses, handed Hunter some papers. Hunter took them, realizing that it was his test.

“I graded yours already,” Mr. Stanson declared, leaning back in his chair and eyeing Hunter disapprovingly. “Almost as quickly as you took it.”

“Thanks,” Hunter mumbled. He glanced at the score, written in bold red marker on the top of the page. 82%…not bad.

“You made some pretty stupid errors,” Mr. Stanson stated. “If you’d taken your time, you might have gotten a better score.”

“Not bad for not studying,” Hunter countered. Mr. Stanson sighed, leaning forward and propping his elbows on his desk.

“You know,” he began, “…every year I get someone like you. Smart, but lazy. I used to think it was because they weren’t stimulated enough…that things were just too easy for them.” He took a sip from a glass of water on his desk. “You wanna know what I think now?”

Hunter just stared at him.

“I think you,” Mr. Stanson stated, jabbing a finger at Hunter, “…are afraid.”

“Of what, getting an A?”

“Of what you might be able to accomplish if you actually tried,” Mr. Stanson corrected.

Hunter glanced down at his test, then back at Mr. Stanson. He felt a familiar bitterness rise up within him.

“My parents tried,” he replied at last. “It didn’t work out so well for them.”

Mr. Stanson leaned back in his chair, shaking his head.

“You can’t use that as an excuse forever, you know,” he retorted. “You’ve had it rough, I get it. But sooner or later you’re going to have to take a chance, Hunter. You’re a good kid, and you have a lot of potential…don’t waste it.”

“It’s not an excuse,” Hunter countered. Mr. Stanson sighed.

“Yeah, well next time, don’t hand in your test until time’s up,” he ordered. “Now go on, get out of here.”

Hunter was all-too-happy to oblige, walking out of the classroom and into the hallway. He trudged toward his locker at the far end, weaving around other students in his path. He made it to his locker, spotting his friend Sam already next to it. Short, with black curly hair and glasses, he was a total geek…and one of the awesomest, most loyal people Hunter had ever met.

“What did Mr. Stanson want?” Sam asked, opening his own locker and dropping his books into it. Hunter shrugged.

“Just busting my balls,” he answered. “He was mad I got a B.”

“What a douche,” Sam muttered.

“Nah,” Hunter replied. “He’s pretty cool, actually.” And it was true; as much of a hard-ass as Mr. Stanson was, he was also the only teacher who really seemed to give a damn about his students. He was the only teacher who knew the truth about Hunter’s Dad…and his Mom.

“You want to hang out later?” Sam asked.

“Sure,” Hunter agreed, dropping his pre-calc textbook into his own locker.

“Hey Hunter,” he heard a voice say. He looked up, seeing Tyler – Tiffany’s boyfriend – walking up to him.

Great, he thought. This again.

 “Finished early again, huh?” Tyler asked.

“Uh huh.”

“Heard that was a problem for you,” Tyler quipped, smirking at him. “Caught you staring at my girlfriend again,” he added. “Need to change your underwear?”

Hunter ignored him, dropping his pre-calc textbook in his locker. He felt more eyes staring at him, and knew that Tyler’s buddies had swooped in to enjoy the show. As usual.

“Get lost Tyler,” Sam interjected. But Tyler ignored him.

“Aww, it’s okay man,” he continued, patting Hunter on the shoulder. “You’ll get laid someday. Somewhere out there, I’m sure there’s a guy that’s perfect for you.” Tyler’s friends laughed at that, and Hunter rolled his eyes.

“You volunteering sweetheart?” he asked, not even bothering to look up. He shut his locker, spinning the lock.

“Oh damn,” one of Tyler’s friends blurted out. “Tyler, I think he wants you!” Tyler laughed.

“Yeah, you know what,” he said, “…I think I did catch him trying to sneak a peek at my dick in the bathroom.” He sneered at Hunter. “You a faggot, boy?”

Hunter froze.

“I asked you a question,” Tyler pressed. Hunter turned to face him.

“You sure had a hard time finishing that test,” Hunter replied coolly. “Maybe you should switch to the special needs class.”

Tyler stared at Hunter for a long moment, then stepped in closer, staring down at him. He was a good eight inches taller than Hunter, and a whole lot bigger.

“You calling me a retard?” he shot back. “Careful boy,” he added, “…or I’ll hit you so hard I’ll make you a retard.”

“Right,” Hunter muttered, turning back to his locker. “Is that what you did to Tiffany?” he asked. “That explains why she’s going out with you.”

Tyler stepped in even closer, glaring down at him.

“What did you say, boy?”

Hunter ignored him, zipping up his backpack and closing his locker door. Tyler shoved him backward, and Hunter slammed into Sam, knocking his friend over. Sam fell to the floor, his glasses flying off his face. Hunter managed to keep his balance, and looked down at Sam’s glasses.

They were broken.

Hunter helped Sam up, handing him his glasses, then turned to see Tyler stepping toward them again.

“I asked you what you said,” Tyler growled. Hunter clenched his fists, feeling anger rising within him.

“Need me to talk slower so you can understand?”

Tyler went to shove Hunter again, but this time Hunter pushed back, and they both moved back a step. Tyler’s face turned red.

“You little black piece of shit,” he spat. Hunter smirked.

“Dumb and racist,” he shot back. “You’re nothing but white trash, Tyler.” Tyler shoved him again, pushing him back a few steps.

“At least my white trash dad didn’t knock up some dirty nigger ho,” he spat.

The rage was instant.

Hunter burst forward, swinging his fist at Tyler’s face as hard as he could, his knuckles slamming into the jock’s nose with a loud crack. Tyler dropped like a stone, landing on his back on the floor. Blood spurted from his nose, gushing over his face and onto the floor.

He was out. Cold.

“Jesus!” one of Tyler’s friends blurted out.

“Anyone else wanna talk shit about my mom?” Hunter asked, stepping toward one of Tyler’s friends. Then he felt arms grab him from behind, pulling him away. He resisted, trying to break free.

“Stop it!” he heard a man shout. “Stop now!

It was Mr. Stanson, he realized. Holding him from behind.

Well shit.

 

* * *

 

Hunter slumped into the car seat, pulling on his seat belt and not bothering to make eye contact with his father. Dad sighed, starting the engine and pulling out of the high school parking lot. They drove in silence for a while, turning down this street and that. Hunter stared out of his side window glumly, hearing Dad clear his throat.

“What happened?” Dad asked.

“Some kid dressed up as a punching bag,” he answered. “It wasn’t my fault,” he added. “The costume was so realistic. How was I supposed to know?”

Dad just glared at him.

“Some douchebag started pushing me and Sam around,” he admitted. When Dad didn’t say anything, he glanced over at him. “He broke Sam’s glasses.”

“You broke his nose, Hunter,” Dad countered.

“He started it,” Hunter insisted. “I tried to talk my way out of it, but he kept going after me.”

“Okay,” Dad replied. “But now you’re suspended.”

Hunter said nothing, staring at his own lap. He was suspended…for a week. He was lucky he hadn’t been expelled. With only a year left, that wasn’t a mistake he could afford to make. Even his suspension might cost him dearly. With his Dad’s salary, he had to get a good scholarship if he wanted to have any chance of going to college with Sam and the rest of his friends.

“Sorry Dad,” he muttered.

“I am too,” Dad replied. “That was really stupid, Hunter.”

“I know.”

“You can’t just hit people when they piss you off,” he continued. “You have to learn how to control your temper.”

“I know,” Hunter repeated. He’d heard the lecture a thousand times.

“If you knew it,” Dad pressed, “…you’d do it.”

Hunter sighed, staring out of his side window, at the houses whizzing by. They were close to home now, only a half-mile away. He swallowed past a lump in his throat.

“He made fun of Mom.”

Dad sighed, running a hand through his short, salt-and-pepper hair, stopping at a red light. His jawline rippled, and he accelerated rapidly when the light turned green.

“He called her a…”

“I don’t want to know,” Dad interjected. “I really don’t want to know.”

“He used the N-word,” Hunter continued. Dad grimaced.

“I understand why you got upset,” he conceded. “But it isn’t an excuse to hit someone.” He turned down a side street. “You could’ve gone to a teacher, you know. Then you wouldn’t have gotten suspended.”

“Yeah, well,” Hunter muttered, still gazing out of his window. They were passing a few greenhouses now. “Mom would’ve hit him.”

Dad slowed down, then turned into their driveway, parking the car in the garage. He pulled his keys from the ignition, getting out of the car without saying anything. Hunter sighed, opening his own door and getting out. They both went into the house, taking off their shoes and walking into the kitchen.

“She would’ve,” Hunter insisted. Dad turned to glare at him.

“I know she would’ve,” he replied. “That doesn’t make it right.”

“Yeah, but…” Hunter began, but Dad put up a hand.

“Stop,” he ordered. Hunter obeyed, glaring at his father silently. “You screwed up,” he stated. “And now this suspension is going on your permanent record. Think about that,” he added. “You wanted to go to college with your friends? Too bad. You wanted to get into a good college at all? Good luck.” He turned away from Hunter, his jawline rippling. “I need to go think for a bit,” he stated. “We’ll finish this conversation later.” He walked to one of the kitchen cupboards, retrieving a tall glass. “Go to your room.”

Hunter complied, walking out of the kitchen and into the foyer, then taking the stairs up to the second floor. He went into his room, closing the door behind him and throwing himself on his bed. He buried his head in his pillow, taking a deep breath in, then letting it out.

Great.

Dad was right, of course…and Hunter knew it. Tyler deserved what he got, there was no doubt about it. But it sure hadn’t been worth getting suspended over. He’d screwed himself over…again. And without a scholarship, he wouldn’t be able to afford to go to college with Sam and the rest of his friends. All the plans he’d been making for the last year had just been destroyed. His future was gone. His life as he knew it was over.

Just great.

He felt a heavy paw on his back, and rolled onto his side, seeing a black cat standing there. It meowed, rubbing the side of its head against his shoulder, purring loudly.

“Hey Charlie,” he mumbled, petting the cat absently. He’d named her after his Mom’s old black cat. She purred louder, and he scratched around Charlie’s ears, earning a truly blissful look. He sighed, rolling onto his back and letting her walk onto his belly and sit down, positioning herself perfectly for maximum petting.

Turning his head to the side, he spotted a framed photo on top of his nightstand. It was a picture of him and his mom when he’d been nine. It was the last picture they’d taken together, before she’d died. While his dad was white and his mom had been black, he mostly took after his mother, being just slightly less brown. It wasn’t exactly an advantage. White kids at school shunned him for being black – while pretending not to – and black people shunned him for not being black enough…and didn’t bother pretending otherwise. Points for honesty, he supposed.

Hunter stared at the picture, trying to remember what she’d been like, his mom. She’d died about eight years ago, and each year he had a harder time recalling memories of her. He’d have already forgotten her voice if it hadn’t been for the videos Dad had saved of her.

Like everything else in his life, she was slipping away. And there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.

He sighed, rubbing his eyes and turning back to Charlie, running a hand over her back. Her butt rose in the air as he reached her tail, and she continued to purr, her eyes nearly shut.

“You’re the only one here who isn’t broken, Charlie,” Hunter murmured.

He turned back to the picture of his mom, staring at it. Mom had died on a work site, according to his father. Her and Dad been rappelling down a tunnel when her equipment had failed, and she’d plummeted to her death. After that, Dad had quit being a professor at the university, going to work as a consultant for the Army Corps of Engineers.

He sighed again, feeling antsy. He turned onto his side, causing Charlie to hop off his belly and onto the floor. Then he got out of bed, walking out of his room. The pull cord to the attic was right outside of his bedroom door; he pulled it slowly, watching as the wooden stairs descended. He unfolded the stairs, then climbed up to the attic, flipping the light switch on the wall as he went up. Charlie joined him, following close behind. The attic smelled musty, and was oppressively hot; he ignored this, stepping onto the plywood floor. He turned toward the far end of the attic, spotting a few boxes there.

Mom’s stuff.

He walked up to one of the boxes, kneeling before it. There was a stack of old photos there, ones he’d long since memorized. A few of her favorite books. A bottle of Egyptian musk, her favorite perfume. He grabbed this, opening it and sniffing it. He closed his eyes, feeling an immediate sense of peace.

It smelled like her.

He held the feeling for as long as he could, but it slipped away quickly, and he sighed, capping the perfume and setting it down. He felt Charlie rub against his leg, and smiled at her.

You’d never leave me,” he said, scratching under her chin. Then he turned back to the box. There were a pair of workout gloves, still reeking of sweat and dust. Her favorite jacket – pink, a color she’d hated, strangely enough. A notebook. An old smartphone.

He paused, staring at the phone, then picking it up. It was practically ancient, probably nine years old. He blew the dust off the screen, turning it around in his hands. He’d never really paid the phone much mind. He pushed the power button, but of course it didn’t turn on. He glanced at the bottom of it, not recognizing the port for the power cord. He sighed, dropping the phone back in the box.

He was about to stand up when he glanced at the phone again. He picked it back up, then stood, stepping back down the attic stairs. He waited for Charlie to come down, then folded the stairs back up, pushing the trapdoor to the attic shut. He hesitated, then walked into the spare bedroom, looking inside the closet there. A few boxes had been stacked to one side. He rummaged through them, finally finding what he was looking for:  a box of cords.

He checked each cord methodically, placing the ends of the cords up to the phone’s charging port one-by-one. After a few minutes, he found one that matched.

Bingo.

He plugged the cord into the wall, plugging the other end into the phone. Nothing happened.

Come on…

He waited a few seconds, but the screen remained blank. He shouldn’t have been surprised. The phone was so old that the battery must have died. He was about to unplug it when the screen suddenly turned on.

Yes!

He smiled, watching as the phone booted up. Rows of icons appeared on the screen. He scrolled through them, then found what he assumed was the icon for camera photos. He tapped it, seeing row after row of thumbnails appear. He scrolled through them, then clicked on a random one. It was a picture of Mom and Dad in their old office at the university, along with a tall, lanky younger man Hunter didn’t recognize. He swiped the screen, seeing the next picture…a dirt path leading up a hill, with a sign on the side of the path.

Welcome to Smuggler’s Cave, it read.

Hunter swiped again, seeing another picture of the path, this time showing it lead to the mouth of a cave ahead. Dad and the lanky guy were ahead. Dad’s muscles bulged out of his t-shirt; those were back in his bodybuilding days, before Mom had died. He sure as hell didn’t look like that anymore. The only thing bulging out of his shirt now was his belly.

Hunter swiped again. Now they were inside the cave. A few more pictures of Dad and the other guy. Then a picture of them standing beside a collapsed wall. Rocks were strewn across the cave floor, a small hole – barely big enough for a man to fit through – in the wall. In the next picture, Dad was standing in a cramped cavern. There was a large hole in the ground, and Dad was shining his flashlight down it. It was a long vertical shaft, descending as far as the eye could see. A rope had been tied to a large rocky outcropping near the hole.

The next picture showed a pair of muscular brown legs dangling into the tunnel, the rope extending downward. It was obviously Mom. He could barely make out someone further down.

He hesitated, realizing that he was looking at the pictures Mom had taken right before her death. She’d fallen down a shaft, after all. It had to be this shaft. His finger hovered over the screen, and he felt a twinge of fear in his gut.

He took a deep breath in, then swiped again.

Now they’d apparently reached the bottom of the tunnel, and were standing in a small cavern, lit by a few lanterns. Dad was pointing to a small tunnel on the far end of the cavern. The next picture showed them walking down the tunnel, and the next showed them in yet another cavern. The tall, lanky guy was standing next to a shorter man, and to their left was a thick band of black rock that extended all the way to the ceiling. Strange symbols were carved into that rock.

Wait, he thought. That doesn’t make any sense. Mom had fallen down the tunnel as they’d traveled down it…that’s what Dad had told him over and over again. Yet here she was, taking pictures of them at the bottom.

He hesitated, then swiped again.

The next picture showed Mom swinging a pickaxe, and the next showed a large hole in the wall, Mom standing beside it with a rather satisfied smile on her face. He found himself smiling, and swiped again.

He frowned, trying to understand what he was looking at.

There was a large tunnel, that he could tell. It looked to be made of pure rock. Ahead, there was a huge black arch, shaped like an upside-down “U.” It looked to be made of the same black rock with the symbols he’d seen earlier. Indeed, there were more symbols carved along its entire length. The arch surrounded a wall of utter blackness, as if the rock there had been spray-painted with black paint. He could see nothing beyond that. To one side, he saw his Dad and the two other men standing by the arch; Dad was pointing to one of the symbols there.

He swiped again.                           

More pictures of the symbols, close-ups now. He swiped through them quickly, until he found a photo of the arch again. This time, the shorter man had his hand on the black wall, and his Dad and the tall guy were watching him. Hunter swiped again, then blinked.

The next picture showed the shorter guy touching the wall again. But this time his hand was going through the wall. Or rather, it had disappeared into the blackness.

That’s weird.

The next picture showed the man again, but this time his arm had vanished into the wall all the way up to the elbow. Hunter’s eyebrows furrowed, and he stared at the man’s face.

He looked terrified.

Hunter hesitated, then swiped again. But that was the end of it…there were no more pictures. He stared at the final picture, at the man with his arm in the wall. It looked like he was trying to pull his arm back…and obviously not succeeding. Dad and the taller guy looked alarmed.

Hunter stared at the picture for a long moment, then finally shut the phone off. He left it where it was, letting it charge. Then he went back to his own room, sitting down at his desk and booting up his laptop. Charlie hopped on his desk, trying to sit on his keyboard, as usual. He put her on his lap, then waited for his computer to boot up.

Welcome to Smuggler’s Cave.

He did a quick search for the cave, and found a web page about it within seconds, along with an address. It was about an hour’s drive from here. He printed the page out, hearing his printer whirring as it worked, spooking Charlie, who hopped off his lap and bolted from the room. Then he grabbed the printout, folding it and stuffing it in his pocket. He walked back into the spare room, waiting for the phone to charge for a bit longer, then unplugging it and walking out of the room. He went downstairs, walking into the living room. There Dad was, in his usual spot on the couch, watching TV with a tall glass of brown liquid in his hand. Whiskey, as usual. It was already half-empty.

“Dad,” he called out. Dad turned to face Hunter. His eyes were glassy.

“What?” he slurred. Then he frowned. “You’re supposed to be in your room.” Hunter glared at him.

“And you’re not supposed to drink anymore,” he shot back, reaching for Dad’s glass. Dad pulled it away just in time, cradling it to his chest. “Come on Dad,” he insisted. “Give it to me.”

“What do you want?” Dad demanded, refusing to give it up. Hunter grit his teeth, then gave up, crossing his arms over his chest.

“What happened to Mom?” he asked. Dad’s brow furrowed.

“What?”

“What happened to Mom?” Hunter repeated. He held up Mom’s phone. Dad stared at it, then shook his head.

“What are you…”

“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” Hunter interjected. He turned on the phone, the last picture appearing on the screen. He tossed the phone at his father. It bounced off Dad’s chest, landing in his lap. He flinched, then set his glass down on the coffee table – far away from Hunter – picking up the phone.

His face paled.

“You told me Mom died falling down that tunnel,” Hunter accused, pointing at the phone. Dad stared at the picture, then glanced back up at Hunter.

“Hunter…”

“How did she die?” he demanded. “Tell me the truth.”

“She fell after we were climbing back up…”

“Don’t lie to me Dad,” Hunter interjected. “She’s my mom. You owe me the truth.”

Dad stared at Hunter mutely, then glanced back down at the phone. At the photo of the man’s arm in the wall. At the panic in the man’s face. Then he sighed, his shoulders slumping.

“Alright,” he muttered. He stared at the phone for a moment longer, then turned to face the TV. “She didn’t fall down the tunnel.”

“Then what happened?”

Dad shook his head mutely, staring at the TV. Through the TV.

“I don’t know,” he admitted at last. “She…it happened so fast.”

“What happened?”

“The damn wall,” Dad answered. “It took her.”

Hunter stared at him uncomprehendingly.

“What do you mean?”

“It sucked her in,” Dad explained. “Just like it sucked Corey in.”

“Corey?”

“The guy with his arm in the wall,” Dad clarified. “He touched the wall, and his arm went right through. He tried to pull it out, but he couldn’t. Then it pulled him in, and he never came back.”

Hunter processed this for a moment, hardly believing what he was hearing.

“And Mom?” he pressed. Dad sighed, lowering his gaze to his lap.

“She got caught in the wall trying to save Corey,” he replied. He raised a finger. “One damn finger was all it took.”

“Wait,” Hunter stated. “She got caught in the wall too?” Dad nodded, swallowing visibly. He reached for his drink then, taking a big gulp, then setting it back down.

“One damn finger,” he muttered. He took another gulp. “One goddamn finger.”

“Why didn’t you pull her out?” Hunter pressed. Dad turned to glare at him.

“You think I didn’t try?” he shot back. He shook his head. “I couldn’t save her,” he muttered. “It was too late. There was nothing I could do.” He shook his head, staring at the TV again. “I watched her die.”

“How do you know?” Hunter asked. Dad frowned, glancing up at him.

“How do I know what?”

“That she’s dead?” Hunter pressed. “You don’t even know what happened to her.”

Dad said nothing.

“She could still be alive!” Hunter exclaimed, his heart racing. He walked forward, grabbing the phone and pointing at it. “We could go here and…”

“No,” Dad interrupted, his tone cold. “We can’t.”

“But…”

“The government’s all over that place now,” Dad interrupted. “The Army Corps of Engineers took over after I called them.” He shook his head in disgust. “I asked them to help me find Neesha, and instead they took over and blocked me from ever going there again…even after I started working for them.”

“But she’s there,” Hunter insisted. Dad raised his eyebrows.

“Where?” he asked. “In the wall?” He shook his head. “She’s gone, Hunter.”

“Well, why didn’t you go after her then?” Hunter pressed. “You just watched her get sucked in, then left?”

“I didn’t just watch her get sucked in!” Dad shouted. Hunter flinched, staring at his Dad, who glared at him furiously. “You act so high-and-mighty, thinking you know what you’re talking about. But you don’t know shit Hunter.”

Hunter stared at his father silently for a long moment, resisting the urge to snap at the man. He crossed his arms over his chest.

“You should’ve gone after her,” he insisted. Dad just stared at him mutely, his jawline rippling. “I would’ve gone after her.”

“You think I didn’t want to?” Dad retorted, his voice cracking. He stood up from the couch, swaying slightly. “Is that what you think?”

Hunter said nothing, glaring at his father.

“I was going to go after her,” Dad insisted. “But she told me not to.” He took a deep, shaky breath in, letting it out, his eyes moist, and pointed one finger at Hunter’s chest. “The only reason I didn’t go after her was because of you,” he spat.

Hunter felt his blood go cold.

Dad lowered his finger, grabbing his glass and taking another gulp. He stared at Hunter for a long moment, his mouth quivering. Tears spilled down his cheeks.

“She was the love of my life,” he said, his voice cracking. “But I stayed for you.”

Hunter stared at Dad, at the mostly-empty glass in the man’s hand. He thought back to every after-school game Dad had missed, every party Hunter hadn’t been able to go to because he had to stay home and make sure Dad didn’t fall and kill himself. Or drive and kill someone else.

“I wish you hadn’t,” Hunter muttered at last. “You could’ve been a hero,” he added. “But now you’re just a lousy drunk.”

Dad’s eyes widened, and he lunged for Hunter, whipping the glass at Hunter’s head. Hunter dodged at the last minute, and the glass hurtled through the air, smashing into a framed photo on the wall behind him. It shattered, sending the photo crashing to the floor, glass spilling outward in all directions. Hunter backpedaled, half-expecting Dad to come after him and beat him. But instead, the man froze in place, his eyes on the ruined photo on the floor.

It was a blown-up photo from Mom and Dad’s wedding.

Dad stared at it, his face turning deathly pale. He stumbled backward, landing on the couch and sitting there, his eyes unblinking. Then he looked up at Hunter.

“You’re right,” he muttered at last. “I should have left you behind.”