“Finding Phineas Gray” – a short story

Author’s Note – “Finding Phineas Gray” was written as an assignment for a creative writing class, but it includes the youngest sister of the Williams family.  Darla Williams can see ghosts, and unlike her sisters, who received their gifts as teenagers, Darla received hers at the tender age of five.  Darla called the ghosts “faeries” because of the glimmering, ghostly auras she saw around them and the fact that they moved so quickly.

I hope you enjoy the story.  Come back soon for more about the Williams  and the Jamison siblings.  And feel free to leave comments and share the link to this site with others.

“Finding Phineas Gray”

After she’d finally calmed down, nine-year-old Darla Williams began assessing her situation.  She was stuck in an old mining shaft, one that she couldn’t simply climb out of, and needed to remain calm if she were ever going to see her mom and brothers again.  She’d spent all last evening screaming at the top of her lungs until she was hoarse, only to stop when she’d heard scratching sounds coming from the hole she’d fallen through.  Was it a nocturnal animal searching for food?  Darla didn’t know, but she certainly wasn’t going to give it any reason to come down into the shaft to investigate her noises.

And though it grossed her out, she’d remembered her brothers talking about how wild animals avoided the smell of human pee; so she made sure that when she went, she’d done it near the incline to the shaft’s exit.

“Think, Darla,” she now said aloud to herself.  She always talked to herself when she was anxious or trying to solve a puzzle.  Today, she was doing both.  She’d followed her brothers, Josh, Jake, and Jax, into the woods when they’d said they were going exploring.  Not one to be left behind, Darla had quickly packed a snack of pretzels and pop in her go-to-it bag that she always kept ready, just in case.

A lot of good it did her now.  She’d fallen at least a hundred feet straight down into a mine shaft with no way of getting out.  Actually, it was more like fifteen or twenty feet.  And it wasn’t straight down, but rather on a slant.  So, she’d rolled into the shaft, on an angle.  Still, it was too steep to climb and she was exhausted from trying.

“There’s gotta be a way out,” she said.  She dug into her go-to-it bag and pulled out her flashlight.  Thank goodness the batteries had died last week and she had replaced them; otherwise, she would have been stuck underground now with no light.  She aimed the light down one of the three shafts that led away from where she now stood.

“Which way?  Which way?”  Darla walked a few feet down the first tunnel.  Her flashlight barely penetrated the dense blackness surrounding her.  She made her way back to the juncture of the three tunnels.  She walked a little ways down the second tunnel; her light still ineffective against the tangible, looming darkness.  The trip into the third tunnel was the same as the first two – dark and scary.

Darla sat down against the wall and looked up at the hole she’d fallen through.  The daylight was fading and Darla was beginning to become scared again.  She had never been alone before at night, in the dark.  Her brothers and sister had always been there to sooth her when she became afraid of the dark.  But last night, she’d had to console herself.  She’d kept the light on until the moon had risen high enough to cast some light down into the shaft, and then she’d heard the scratching.

Now, as it grew darker in the tunnel juncture, Darla’s heart began to race.  “Not another night here alone,” she whispered.  Her eyes welled up with tears, but she brushed them away.  She sat up straighter and shook her head to clear away the self-pity.  “I am not going to be trapped here another day,” she said.  “I am going to get out all by myself.”  She tucked her short brown hair behind her ear and stood.

“I c’n help ya get out,” a thickly accented male voice called from the darkness.

“Who’s there?” Darla asked, jerking her head in the direction of the voice.  She waved her flashlight in the darkness.  Nothing.  Fear crept slowly up her spine at the thought of someone she didn’t know in the tunnel with her.

“Jax, is that you?”  No response.  “This isn’t funny.  I’m really scared,” she said.  “I want to go home now.”  Darla secured her bag over her shoulder and inched her way along the wall, closer to the beginning of the incline.

“Don’t be scared,” the voice said.  “I really want t’ help ya.”  It was hard for Darla to understand the voice.  Its thick accent was something she’d never heard before.

“I’m not scared,” she said, her voice cracking slightly.  “You must be scared if you can’t come out and let me see who you are.”  Darla continued to stare into the tunnel the voice had come from, searching the darkness for a person.

Why would a grown man be down in these old mining tunnels? she thought.  She knew better than to talk to strangers, but what was she to do when she was trapped underground with one who could possibly help her find her way out?

In the darkness of the third tunnel, Darla saw a flickering of a light.  It appeared to be a firefly flittering in the archway; but when it began to grow larger and take on a form, Darla’s heart beat faster.  The ghostly image shifted into that of a man right in front of her eyes.  He reminded Darla a lot of her oldest brother, Jesse – tall with large arms and a round chest, but this man had light-colored hair and wore funny clothes.  And his face was dirty, smudges with dark streaks on his cheeks.

“Who are you?” Darla boldly asked.  Unlike most people who would run screaming at the site of a ghost, Darla was comfortable in their presence.  She’d been seeing ghosts for almost two years now.  Her sister Dori explained it as her gift – a magical inheritance from their grandmother; but Darla was the youngest Williams family member ever to receive an Actuary gift.

“The name’s Phineas Gray.”  The man made no effort to move toward Darla, instead hovering centimeters above the ground in the same spot he materialized.  “I work these mines.  Know every inch for at least five miles in any direction.”

“These mines have been closed for a really long time,” Darla said.

“Then how’d ya get down here, eh?” Phineas asked scratching his head through his hat.  A dirty cloud rose above his head and hovered like a swarm of gnats.

“I fell from there.”  Darla pointed to the hole above her head that was now completely dark.  It would be hours before the moon would rise to give her any light and she wanted to save her batteries.  Thank goodness Phineas was like many other ghosts Darla had encountered and gave off a soft 20-watt glow.

“Your family’s not searching for ya?”

“I guess so,” Darla said, not really sure if they were or not.  “I don’t know if they know where I am.”  The tears sprang up again at the thought of her family going on with their life without her.

“There’ll be none of that,” Phineas said moving toward her.  “Ya gotta be strong to make it outta here, see.”

“Do you know the way out?”  Darla took one of the socks she had in her bag out and wiped her eyes and nose.

“ ‘Course I do,” Phineas said, “But I can’t go with ya.”

“Why not?”  The thought of walking alone through the dark tunnels had Darla’s heart racing again.

“I can’t leave here.” He opened his arms wide to indicate the junction.  “This is where I died and this is where I must stay.  But I can tell ya which way to go, to get out.”

“Is it far?”  Darla asked.

“A right good ways, but ya can make it if ya can mark a map to follow.”  Phineas looked up to the hole above them.  “It’s night now.  Ya wanna wait ‘til mornin’?”

“It doesn’t matter.  The tunnels are dark and I have a flashlight.”  Darla flipped the switch to swing the light across the floor.  She dug into her bag for her pencil and notepad, and let out a groan of frustration.  “Oh, no!  I cleaned out my bag last week and left my pencil and paper on my dresser at home.   I don’t have anything to write on.”

“Not ta worry, lass,” Phineas said looking around the shaft floor.  “I see ya got a key.”  He nodded toward the house key on a lanyard around Darla’s neck.  “Ya can use that to scratch out a map on that rock piece there.”  He pointed to a small, dark, flat rock the size of his outstretched hand.

“It’s so small.” Darla picked up the piece of rock.  Though it was only the size of her two hands put together, it was heavy!  She didn’t know if she’d be able to carry it for very long.  “It’s heavy, Phineas.  How far do I have to carry it?”

“From here?  About a half- mile.”  He moved to stand beside Darla.  “Now, I’m gonna tell ya how ta get outta here.  Ya might want ta scratch this in the dirt first, then on that limestone there.”  He proceeded to give her directions that would lead her down the third tunnel to an exit that sounded like it would put her out near the back corner of her yard.

The map was full of turns and after nearly an hour of drawing and redrawing in the dirt, Darla was finally ready to cut the map into the flat piece of limestone.  She used the edge of her key, holding the rock between her feet and the flashlight in her mouth as she scraped the stone the best she could.

Cutting the rock was hard work.  Phineas kept disappearing, and Darla would call him back to recheck her map marks.  She didn’t know what time is was when she finished, but the moon had risen above the hole she’d fallen through and was on its downward arc when she turned off the flashlight to rest.  She would leave in the morning.

The sun woke her shining down on her from the opening above.  Darla rose from her seated position where she’d slept and dug in her bag for some pretzels to eat.  Her pop was gone, and the pretzels soaked up all the saliva in her mouth, but she was hungry.

“Phineas, I’m leaving,” Darla called.  “Thank you for your help.”  Darla took the dental floss and her clean sock from her bag.  She tore a long piece of floss from the roll, tied it around the sock, and then tied the whole thing to a pillar at the junction.  “I’ll probably not come back, Phineas, but I’m leaving a reminder just in case.”  She waited for the small flash of light to signal Phineas’s arrival, but it never came.

Darla sighed, adjusted her bag over her shoulder, and took up the rock.  She set off down the second tunnel, checking the makeshift map often, using her flashlight as a beacon.  After what felt like hours, and after numerous twists, falls, and restarts, Darla noticed a thin stream of light beckoning to her from the end of the tunnel.

As she approached the opening, she heard voices calling her name in the distance.  She pushed her way through the overgrowth of weeds that nearly choked the small opening, scratching her arms and ripping holes in her jeans.   She glanced back once more and thought she saw a glimmer of light deep within the mine shaft, but if it was Phineas, he never made his presence known.

Darla stood, tired from the exertion of her escape, but grateful to be out of the mine shaft.  The sun warmed her face, making her realized how cold she had been.  She looked across the field and saw the top of her own house poking just above the chest-high grass and vowed to herself that she would never again follow her brothers into the woods.  Not without restocking her go-to-it bag.

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