“This is it,” Daniel said. He slowed the rusted pickup truck to a stop near a small clearing in the woods. The headlights cut through the tall pine trees, casting shadows like prison bars along the forest floor.
“You sure you want to do this?” Luke asked, as Daniel climbed from the truck.
Daniel reached behind the driver’s seat and pulled out a heavy-duty bolt cutter. “You have any better ideas?” He slammed the door and went around to the back of the truck.
“Shit,” Luke whispered under his breath. He grabbed his flashlight from the seat and exited the passenger side, closing the door behind him. “No,” he said, as he walked towards the back to meet Daniel. “I just — I don’t know. Maybe we should just call the cops. Explain what happened.”
“That ain’t gonna bring him back,” Daniel said.
Luke shined his flashlight on the dead body in the back of the pickup. It was tightly wrapped in a dirty white sheet stained with a bloom of deep red blood.
“Where are we taking him?”
“The well.” Daniel pointed into the woods.
Luke panned the light until it found a six-foot-wide circle of flagstones piled waist-high and capped with a heavy wooden lid. Two flat metal bars were criss-crossed over the top. Ancient padlocks clamped the ends of the bars to rusted metal rings driven deep into the mortar between the stones. A knotted tree with thick horizontal branches loomed over the well like a guardian.
Daniel slapped the side of the truck to get Luke’s attention. “C’mon, we don’t have all night.” He slid his arms under the body’s shoulders. “Help me lift.”
Luke hesitated for a moment, then tucked his flashlight under his arm and grabbed the body by the legs. Together, he and Daniel carried the corpse over to the well and lowered it to the ground.
Luke looked around nervously. “You sure no one will find him?”
“Out here?” Daniel spun in a circle, gesturing at the dense forest. “Nobody even knows where this is.”
Daniel clamped the bolt cutter around one of the padlocks. “That’s because my asshole brother took me here when we were kids once, to scare me.” The lock dropped to the ground. “And he only found it by accident.”
“What do you mean, scare you? Scare you how?”
Daniel cut the second lock, then circled to the other side of the well. “Supposedly there was a bunch of witches that lived out here, back in the 1800’s. Slaves, or former slaves. I forget. Weird shit was happening in town — dead crops, livestock missing, shit like that — so of course the first thing they thought was, ‘It’s gotta be witches.’ Right?”
“Of course,” Luke said.
Daniel strained to cut the third lock. Finally, it snapped. “Folks in Cedarville apparently tracked ’em down out here and lynched six of ’em. Up there.” He nodded to the branches of the tree extending overhead, then moved to the fourth and final padlock. “Then they chopped ’em up into pieces and threw ’em down the well.” The last lock hit the ground.
“Yeah. Bad time to be a witch. Or a slave.”
“That’s Cedarville though,” Luke added grimly. “Bunch of racist fucks, even today.”
Daniel removed the flat metal bars from the well and tossed them aside. “Anyway. Point is, nobody’s coming out here.” He grasped the edge of the cover and prepared to lift. “Ready?”
Luke walked over to the well and grabbed the other side of the lid. Something caught his eye.
“Whoa. Hold up.”
He shined his flashlight on the cover, then brushed away a layer of dirt and rust flakes to reveal words carefully carved into the wood. He read them aloud.
“Thus is the fate … of those who turn from God.”
Luke looked up at Daniel. “You sure he made that story up?”
“I don’t know. Who cares? Maybe he heard it at camp or something.”
“I’m just saying. Why would someone carve that there?” He pointed at the words on the cover. “And why the bars, and the padlocks?”
“To keep people out?”
“Or to keep something in.”
“Jesus Christ. Are you serious?” Daniel took off his Cedarville High baseball cap and scratched his fingers through his hair. “I don’t even know what to say right now.” He put the hat back on his head. “He made it up. And even if he didn’t, it was like 200 years ago. What do you think’s gonna happen?”
Luke looked down and toed one of the rusted padlocks that was on the ground near his foot. “I just think we should go.”
Daniel sighed, irritated. “Fine, I’ll do it myself, if you’re too chickenshit.”
He curled his fingers under the cover. As he did, a dull thud reverberated from deep within the well. It was a hollow sound that seemed to double over itself as it bounced off the well’s circular stone walls.
The cover began to vibrate, its edge rattling against the flagstones. Daniel jerked his hands away as if burned. “Yo, what the fuck?”
“What was that?” Luke asked, alarmed. He stepped back away from the well.
Before Daniel could answer, the heavy wooden cover began to rise, levitating slowly, as if on a cushion of air. Eerie orange light spilled from underneath, distorted by shimmering waves of heat.
Suddenly, a massive shockwave exploded from the well, launching the cover violently into the air. It turned end over end like a coin flip, crashing down through the trees somewhere in the distance.
The shockwave knocked Luke off his feet. He fell backwards, cracking his head on the rocky ground. For a second, he blacked out.
When he came to, he sat up, clutching the back of his head. He groaned in pain.
“What happened?” he slurred. He squinted and looked around, confused.
Daniel was still standing by the well. His mouth hung open in mute horror, his skin reflecting the glow of the firelight. His wide-open pupils were black marbles; embers danced in his polished glass stare.
Luke followed the direction of Daniel’s terrified gaze. He blinked his eyes as his concussion-dulled brain strained to process what he was seeing.
A shadow was rising from the well.
Six, in all.
The shadows flew up and circled around Daniel. He stood frozen, unmoving, paralyzed with fear. They dipped and swirled, intertwining like wisps of smoke as they wrapped around his body. Long, black tendrils encircled his wrists and ankles.
Currents of superheated air venting up from the well caused his clothes to ripple. Sweat poured down his face. His lips quivered as he whispered the same phrase over and over, like a penitent reciting the rosary.
It sounded like, “I’m sorry.”
At the same time, the two metal bars that had been crisscrossed over the well began to rise. They started spinning, slowly at first, then faster and faster, until they were just a blur.
Luke thought back to his summer mowing lawns with his uncle.
That’s what the spinning bars reminded him of.
The sickening realization of what was about to happen hit Luke at the same time that it happened.
The whirling blades launched through the air towards Daniel. Luke turned away, shielding his face from the horror. A torrent of gore sprayed at him, slapping long tendrils of blood across his arms and back. Hot, wet chunks of flesh pelted his body. Through his clenched eyelids, he could see the orange light flare brighter. The heat from the well surged against his skin, the way a campfire pushes heat in your face when you squeeze a splash of lighter fluid into the flames.
After a moment, Luke lowered his hands and cautiously opened his eyes, afraid of what he might see.
But there was nothing.
Daniel was gone.
The only thing that remained was a dark red stain in the dirt, with long smears stretching along the ground from the stain to the well, and up over the sides. As if something — or pieces of something — had been dragged inside.
Luke’s eyes rapidly scanned the area around the well, searching for the murderous shadows, sure they would be coming for him next.
The shadows disentwined and separated as they lowered themselves to the ground near Luke.
There were six of them, each distinct in form and size, their silhouettes visible against the fiery glow still spilling from the hole in the earth. As they drifted closer, one of them leaned down towards him.
Luke’s nostrils burned with the acrid smell of woodsmoke and brimstone.
He heard a whisper. A woman’s voice. A single word.
Luke pointed a trembling finger.
Then the shadows flew past him and into the woods, headed in the direction of the town.