I heard that Political Candidate X once tried to ban all hot-air hand dryers in public restrooms except for those low power ones. But I also heard Political Candidate Y once tried to eliminate the government program that ensures pencil erasers will remain usable for at least six months after purchase. But I also heard that Political Candidate X wants to make his wife’s horse consul, and have us all say the pledge of alliegance to the horse.

But I also heard, from an old man with a limp and a scraggly gray beard, who spoke mostly in a whisper, that Political Candidate Y’s running mate used to work in the mines in Coalwood, West Virginia. He was a bit of a loner, but he put in a good day’s work. Now, it so happened that one year, in the hot July, they were excavating a new tunnel in the mine when there was a cave-in. The running mate and twenty-two others were trapped inside with no food, no water, and no light. All attempts were made to rescue them, but they were undermanned, and the new tunnel went deep. After a week, the rescuers broke through, only to find all the miners dead except one — the running mate was standing upright in the tunnel, blackened head-to-foot with coal dust, surrounded by his fallen comrades.

Doctors cleaned and examined him, and found nothing wrong: no signs of hunger, or thirst, or stress. His only abnormalities were a cloudy look in his eyes and the faint smell of ozone that would not abate. When questioned about the ordeal, he said he remembered nothing.

The mine bosses boarded up the tunnel and gave the running mate some time off. Over the next few months, he stayed shut in his house more and more, and the plants around his property turned black and withered. Neighbors started to complain about their gardens going barren, but they couldn’t get more than a word or two out of him. Sometimes he went out with his hands wrapped in strange bandages, always filthy with black dust. Some townsfolk said he would fix his eyes directly on theirs, with a clarity and intensity that made them look away, while others said he seemed not to see anything, to gaze through people as though they weren’t there. All soon shunned him.

He never returned to his job at the mine, but rumors started up that he visited it in the night. Pickaxes went missing, unexplained footprints lead off towards unused tunnels, and the faint scent of ozone would sometimes waft in on an underground breeze. As suspicions grew, the mine boss confronted him. The running mate only grunted in reply, but his cloudy eyes sharpened into a glare that made the other man step back. Then he shut himself up in his home on the blackened lawn and did not emerge.

Days later, the mine boss was nowhere to be found. Nor was the running mate. The next day another miner went missing. Then another. This time, there were signs near the entrance to the mine that something heavy had been dragged in. Panic seized the town. A militia formed to search the area for the running mate. They boarded up the mine and set guards to watch the entrance.

That night, the alarm was sounded. The townsfolk rallied, armed, and rushed to secure the mine. When they arrived, the guards were missing and the boards lay surrounding the dark opening, covered by black-dust handprints. A trail of blood lead down — it was strangely hot to the touch. In a fury, they stormed in, following the trail deeper and deeper, until they reached the tunnel of the original cave in. Coal dust rose in clouds and clogged the air, but there they saw the running mate, the bodies of the guards at his feet, his eyes glowing like burning pitch in the lamplight. And when he stepped towards them, it is said that the furious hearts of all the the able-bodied men of Coalwood quailed. And at the height of their despair, at the bottom of the mine, the passage collapsed behind them, trapping all save one, whose leg was crushed by the rockfall but in the end escaped.

No rescue attempt was made. No one returned to the mine. Coalwood itself was a ghost town before the year was out. And although no one spoke of the happenings at the mine, in later years there were tales of a wandering man with a silent, cloudy gaze, and whose passing left one smelling faintly of ozone.

Published on Aug 15, 2012
Written by Cameron Higby-Naquin