The disappearance of Eliza Matthews had been a burden for the small mining town of Prospect Hill for nearly a decade. A spritely girl of six, she was the youngest in a group of children playing an innocent game of hide and seek in a forest behind the town’s church.
Eight-year-old Kane had already found his best friend Lucy, as they chanted playfully whilst searching for the others.
“One two three, can’t escape from me.”
Hearing giggles nearby, Kane and Lucy shared a knowing look and crept either side of a fallen tree.
“Four five six, better hide real quick.”
The squeak of excitement clearly gave Sarah away who was never good at this game and always hid in the same place; tucked inside the knot of a tree.
“Seven eight nine, when I catch you you’re mine.”
They clutched onto Sarah who wriggled in delight and laughter.
“I know where Eliza is!” she whispered loudly to the others. “Somewhere in the bushes over there.”
Eliza burrowed herself further into the thicket. She was much better at this game and crouched even lower; holding her breath to keep as silent as possible. Kane looked in the direction towards her with disdain. He never had much time for Eliza; finding her presence annoying around the group and wishing she would play with kids her own age. He turned to the girls with a mischievous grin.
“Let’s leave her here.” he whispered. The other two stared blankly at him until they were interrupted by a loud noise nearby.
“Tim!” Sarah screeched as she ran off.
Kane started to follow but Lucy hung behind uncertain. “C’mon Lucy, let’s find Tim!”
Lucy reluctantly followed as they began the chant again. “One two three…”
Pleased with her ability to remain unfound, Eliza sat still as their voices softened in the distance. She loved this game and wanted to make sure she was the last to be found so she waited.
As the sky began to darken, Eliza huddled in the bushes; shivering from the cold night air that was settling in. Her playful angst of being caught in the game had long been replaced by a dreaded fear in the symphony of night creatures that threatened to consume her.
So she ran.
Without the gift of moonlight, Eliza kept stumbling over stumps and rocks as the night animals seemed to loom closer. She was lost, scared, not knowing which way to turn when her foot gave way and she slid down an embankment.
With her pretty dress torn and bleeding from her arms and legs, Eliza found herself inside the abandoned quarry; a place she knew would enrage her father if he ever found her there. Sobbing in pain, she attempted to pull herself to her feet, but with just a few steps, the ground had given way and she found herself hurtling downwards into the lifeless chasm of a deep mine shaft.
Time made no sense at this point for Eliza. She wasn’t sure how long she’d blacked out for but knew the pain had amplified. Her ankle clearly broken she had only the adrenalin of terror to move her. Clawing her way up the sides of the shaft hole like a caged animal, her breathing escalated to levels of intensity that no six year old could possibly endure. With every ounce of her strength dragging the weight of her body, she had nothing left to scream for help.
A brief moment of hope washed over her as the smell of the night air was close by. Aching from fatigue and dizzy from loss of blood, she gripped onto the sides with all her might until the shaft wall became loose and collapsed inward. Eliza’s body went limp and she tumbled downwards…silent as the large stone that followed.
Ten years on and a large wooden statue of Jesus loomed ominously above the altar in the town’s church. It had been keeping a watchful eye on the party now winding down; signifying the end of another group of year twelve students as they drank their way to the verge of imminent adulthood. Some of them would never see each other again but all shared memories that would last forever…good and bad.
Keeping a friendship together for so many years is hard for any group of kids, but for four of them, the memory of what happened to Eliza created a resilient bond like no other.
Kane had the job to lock up after the party was over. Being the minister’s son had some perks over the years, but was heavily overshadowed by the downsides. They often got to use the church when it was empty, but under strict rules to keep it in immaculate condition. As best friends do, Lucy, Sarah and Tim agreed to help him tidy up.
Tim and Sarah’s offer to help was short-lived as he playfully dragged her into the confession box for a little fun. Sarah was always anxious at the influence Tim had over her but her blind love for him always trumped these instincts. Kane and Lucy shared a knowing glance and left them to it.
“So have you had a chance to think about it?” Lucy questioned Kane as they straightened up some of the pews. She knew it was a touchy subject but was tired of dancing around it and the time to be blunt was now.
Kane struggled to respond; irritated at her constant harping. He knew Lucy had been on him all year about what his plans were after year twelve, wanting him to follow her to a university near the city but he struggled to find the courage to leave his home town.
“Not now Luce.” he groaned.
She deliberately dropped the pew in her hands and walked off; knowing it was becoming fruitless to think they could sustain a relationship beyond this night. As she was about to serve a final ultimatum on their future together, the power throughout the church died. Only the feint moonlight glowing through the stain glassed windows gave them slight visibility.
“Damn it.” Kane grunted.
“Everything okay out there?” Tim shouted from the box as Sarah tried to shoosh him.
“Power just went out.” Lucy called back. “Kane’s seeing if he can fix the old fuse…or he might have to get a new one.”
Kane ignored her biting taunt and stomped towards the storeroom. Inside, he shone a torch onto the decaying fuse box – each one was burnt out.
“Shit.” he whined as he tried to pull one out when it zapped him. “Ow!”
He dropped the torch and it broke, when another light enveloped him. He spun around in fright. Lucy stood there with the light from her phone.
“Thanks.” he quipped sarcastically.
“Can’t leave you completely in the dark can I?” she retorted. Kane mustered a small smile, feeling Lucy had calmed down a bit. He knew she could never stay mad at him for long but also felt she had been a lot more direct lately so he knew the issue needed resolving soon. He unhooked the power and began to repair the damage.
Meanwhile in the confession box, Tim and Sarah were so deep in a passionate kiss they didn’t hear the front doors close slowly by themselves…or the bolts locking gently into position.
“One two three, can’t escape from me…’ the soft voice of Eliza wafted through the main room. “Four five six, better hide real quick…’
Sarah’s face now pushed against the confession window as Tim began to undress her from behind. Spontaneous sex was something Tim relished in, especially in places he felt they shouldn’t.
“Seven eight nine, when I catch you you’re mine…”
The ruby ring Tim had given Sarah earlier that night quivered as she clenched her fist in a mix of pleasure and discomfort. She opened her eyes briefly.
“Now it’s ten…”
Staring at her from the other side of the window in a blood stained dress was the deathly sight of Eliza. Her pale face, contorted and bruised.
“Found you.” she said sweetly.
Lucy’s guttural scream reverberated around the church’s deathly acoustics. Kane and Lucy bolted back into the room.
“What happened?!” they blasted.
Tim cradled Sarah on the floor nearby; a quivering mess.
“She said she saw something.” he replied shakily.
There was no time to process anything as the haunting hum of Eliza echoed through the church.
“Get the hell out of here!” Lucy demanded as they all scrambled towards the door.
They heard a dragging sound and turned back to see the pews moving slowly towards them. Eliza’s voice still humming playfully.
“Tim! Up there!” Kane yelled.
The windows were far too high to climb so he and Tim grabbed a pew and carried it towards an image of Mary with angels embedded in the stained glass. Lucy helped Sarah out first, then turned to pull Tim up as they tumbled out to the fresh night air.
Kane began his climb when he was stopped by the melodic sound behind him.
Eliza sweetly moaned in a tone that Kane had often heard when they were kids; usually when she wanted help with building a lego set or cubby house.
But this time she wasn’t playing games.
Terrified, Kane turned to see the wooden statue of Jesus now bleeding from its hands as it shook violently. He clambered up the pew but as he reached the top, the windows exploded around him. Glass shards rocketed through the room as Kane tumbled to the floor.
The screams from his friends outside paled in comparison to the deafening crunch of the pews that shattered beside him. Kane dodged the deadly entourage headed in his direction as he weaved his way toward the altar where he knew there was a small trapdoor underneath.
Kane had always wondered since a child what the small tunnel was for, that led to a hatch in the back of the church. He was always too scared to ask his father so he never found out but now wasn’t the time to ponder. He had to get out fast. After fumbling the latch to the trapdoor, he quickly dived into the underground shaft moments before the eruption of splinters above.
Lucy and Tim ran to the church rear to meet Kane as he tumbled out of the hatch from the wall. Lucy clutched onto him in relief.
“Where’s Tam? And what the hell did she see?!” Kane questioned.
“I dunno mate she wouldn’t say. She just ran off.” Tim stuttered. “We have to go find her.”
Kane had a strong sense of what Lucy had seen, but chose to keep it to himself.
Sarah kept running. She’d been haunted over the years thinking she saw or heard Eliza, but this time it was clear. She wasn’t going crazy. Eliza was there in the confession box and she wanted to get as far away as possible.
She found herself at the muddy dam but the thick fog made it hard for her to see the edge of the water. Seemingly deaf to the shouts of her name in the distance from the others, she focussed on the quickest way home and it didn’t matter if she had to run twenty miles to get there. As she crept along, the fog increasingly dense, she found herself at the start of the little jetty that stretched out into the middle of the water to a pontoon where they used to catch yabbies as kids.
“Sarah.” Eliza whispered softly.
Sarah froze in fear and looked on in terror towards the end of the jetty. Her scream cut through the night air, giving a beacon to the others in hot pursuit.
“This way!” Lucy beckoned the other two as they ran towards the dam.
Moments later, they arrived, the fog still a thick blanket and no sign of Sarah. Tim ran straight out towards the pontoon.
“Sarah! SARAH!!!” he screamed, on his hands and knees searching the surface of the water below.
The fog thickened and Tim disappeared from Kane and Lucy’s sight as they watch from the bank of the dam.
“Tim! She’s not there!” Kane cried out.
No response. Lucy and Kane shared a look of fear then bolted for the jetty.
“Tim?” the feint voice of Sarah trickled through the fog. He looked closer to the water and Sarah’s saddened face appeared from the ripples. “I’m stuck Tim.”
He turned to see a limp hand rise to the surface wearing Sarah’s ruby ring. Without thought he reached below the ripples to grab her arm when the hand latched on and dragged him into the water.
Kane and Lucy were half way along the jetty when they heard the splash.
“Tim!” Kane shouted as dived into the water.
Lucy watched helplessly in distress.
Tim thrashed around, being pulled further under when suddenly Kane latched onto him, pried him loose from the deathly hand and dragged him to the muddy bank. Breathless, Kane fell to the ground. Lucy ran back to help.
“But I thought…” Tim began as Lucy comforted him.
“It’s okay, it wasn’t her.”
“How can you be so sure?” he pleaded. “I saw her!”
Kane knew he couldn’t keep quiet anymore and had to let them know.
“It’s Eliza. She’s back.”
Tim and Lucy were lost for words. Too many years of memories, guilt and unexplained encounters had rendered them speechless. This wasn’t the first appearance Eliza had made since her fateful death. Usually it was to each of them individually; in the reflection of a mirror or whispers in the night. Mostly unexpected…always terrifying. They all felt paralysed with unresolved grief that had tormented their childhood, but the past year had seen no activity at all and they had quietly hoped it was finally at rest.
However one had always harboured anger towards Kane.
“Damn you Kane!” Tim thumped him.
“It’s not his fault!” Lucy protested but Tim just walked away.
He always felt a victim of circumstance, not having anything to do with the decision to leave Eliza behind during their game of hide and seek. Despite their friendship over the years, he constantly accused Kane of knowing more than he let on about that day…and he was right.
After hearing Eliza’s screams, young Kane had run back to the edge of the quarry where he caught a glimpse of her as she tumbled into the mine shaft. By the time he got there it had completely caved in. He simply panicked, feeling responsible for what happened and feared being blamed for her death…so he kept it all a secret.
Whenever possible he would discreetly visit the quarry to leave a small daisy where Eliza had perished, in some attempt to find peace…but like Eliza, it was never found.
“I know where Sarah will be.” Lucy interjected. “The place she always hides, especially when she would cry over you.’
Lucy gave Tim a dark glare and headed towards the forest. Tim and Kane followed, keeping a healthy distance apart.
Sniffling behind the fallen tree in the forest, Sarah shivered in the cold. She was far too overwhelmed to make sense of how to get home so was drawn to her place of comfort; tucked into the knot of the large limb. She didn’t fit in quite as well as she would when she was eight but it was just as calming.
“Hey.” Lucy piped as she walked around to greet her. She was met with a lunging hug from Sarah who began to cry deeply. “It’s okay hun. We’ll get through this.”
Sarah knew Lucy was saying what she always said, but she didn’t care. She began to rely on Lucy’s mothering nature over the years and it was simply nice to hear her soothing voice in the midst of chaos.
“It’s never been this bad Lou.” Sarah whimpered as Kane and Tim approached them.
“It’s Eliza sweety.” Tim tried to delicately put it but Sarah’s vacant response made it clear she knew. Tim tried to move toward her but she nestled further into Lucy; preferring her comfort. Tim felt hurt and went to speak.
“Just leave it Tim.” Lucy stepped in and he reluctantly backed off. Lucy knew she had found herself in between her friends years ago, but couldn’t help herself when it came to Sarah’s wellbeing. Sarah had often felt Tim pressured her into things earlier than she ever wanted, and never had the courage to say no to him.
“So what’s going to stop her?” Sarah cried out. “We have to stop her!”
“Ask Kane.” Tim sneered. “He’s probably got the answer but as we know prefers to keep secrets.”
“Cut it out Tim” Lucy snapped.
However Lucy knew he was right. Kane had sworn them all to secrecy about ever being with Eliza that day. Kane had convinced them to believe it was best the town didn’t know what happened to her; that it would only cause more pain and suffering. However it meant they carried the burden for life…and no-one was coping.
Tim, getting no response from Kane, tried again to connect with Sarah. This time she accepted his comfort as Lucy reluctantly stepped aside. She felt like she was the only rock holding the group together; a task that had worn deep on her for the past ten years. She wondered why she bothered; why she cared so much, when repeatedly her efforts would prove fruitless.
“Y’know Tim is right.” Sarah scoffed; often siding with Tim even moments after he had offended her. “If it wasn’t for keeping this secret we wouldn’t be chased by a stupid ghost!”
“C’mon that’s not fair.” Lucy interjected.
“It’s true Lucy!” she snapped. “It’s obvious Eliza has some unresolved issues with your boyfriend, which we’re all suffering for and you always defend him!”
Lucy went silent, feeling stabbed by her friend’s attack.
“Shut up Sarah you watch too many movies.” Kane retorted.
“Careful mate!” Tim puffed as the flurry of accusations began hurling between all of them. The bottled up anguish of the past decade erupted into an emotional spat which shredded the remaining seams of friendship. Only one thing could have stopped the derailment.
“What was that?” Lucy heard it first; a prominent cracking noise nearby. The wind had picked up through the trees and began to circle around them, followed by the chilling voice of Eliza.
“One two three, can’t escape from me…”
They all spun around, unable to detect the direction it was coming from when Kane spotted it first.
WHUMP! A massive tree crashed beside them. They stood still in shock as the forest went silent. A small cracking began again, turning a hundred fold as the splintering sounds reverberated with the howling wind. Trees were falling savagely around them as they ran. Kane led the way as Tim pushed Sarah along. Lucy stumbled at the rear but found her footing again until her ankle wedged in some ground roots.
“Kane!” she cried out; yanking at her foot in desperation.
Three tall trees plummeted nearby as Kane spun back to pull Lucy free but found himself shoved away by Tim; who just saved him from another bevy of falling limbs. Kane got to his feet quickly as they shared a brief glance of a long forgotten mateship.
“Keep going!” Tim shouted out as they continued to run through the pelting of trees around them.
The wind howled ferociously through the forest as they crawled through the spikey thicket in a frantic attempt for relief when they all began to tumble downwards. Unknowingly, they had reached the edge of the quarry and slid down the steep embankment in a chilling echo of Eliza’s fate…ten years to this very night. Their desperate attempts to grip onto something to stop them, a tree root, a clump of rocks, all proved futile as they continued to fall towards the bottom.
Finally reaching the end, they lay in excruciating pain amongst the rubble that littered the ground. No one could utter a word beyond a throbbing groan that indicated several broken bones.
Kane began to move, crawling toward the first body he could see. Lucy had clearly snapped her ankle and lay sobbing beside him. Kane reached out with his bloodied hand with an urgent attempt to help but retracted in agony from a dislocated shoulder.
Sarah lay lifeless nearby. Tim dragged himself over and clutched onto her torso. He noticed the ruby ring was bent around Sarah’s twisted swollen finger. He managed to pry it loose and throw it aside, then sobbed onto his loved one just wishing she would wake; vowing to himself to treat her differently if she stayed alive.
Despite the agony, the silence was a welcome relief to the torment…but it wasn’t to last long.
The ground began to rumble and Kane’s eyes darted around to see the loosening silts give way as each of his friends began to sink into the underground shaft holes.
Kane tried to grab Lucy but she kept dropping further. He turned in desperate hope to see if Tim could help but he was struggling to hold himself and Lucy – inches away from total submersion. The entire quarry shook violently, hundreds of holes appeared as Kane collapsed on the ground in ultimate defeat.
“No!” he wailed, “Please Lizzy, no!”
Kane had nothing left. He finally broke and sobbed liked a distraught child. Never before had Kane allowed himself to truly grieve. He cried over the tragedy of his sister, the torment he’d put his friends through and the suffering he endured; spending his youth living in fear. Now praying the ground would swallow him up to end the torture, the quarry fell silent.
A delicate child’s hand lifted his face.
Despite his blurred vision, soaked from tears and blood, he could see the startling apparition of little Eliza. Her dress now pristine white, her complexion radiating as she smiled warmly.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, “I’m so sorry.”
Eliza’s spirit could never move forward until this moment. The shackles of guilt had been broken…the suffering at an end. She now knew her brother would find the peace he was after as she placed a small daisy beside him, gently caressed the side of his cheek and began to move away.
Kane had never known life without such a weight as he watched the ethereal vision of Eliza skipping through the quarry. She slowly faded away, whistling the playful tune from her favourite game.
An unexpected murmur of groans snapped Kane from his euphoric moment as he turned around to see his friends were alive…bruised and battered but alive. Sarah began to stir as Tim just stroked her hair; cradling her in his arms.
As Lucy grit her teeth in pain, Kane managed to muster enough strength to move the hair away from her face. She inhaled deeply, then caught a glimpse of his eyes and knew he had found the resolve she was longing for him to find. Despite the sting of injuries, they both managed a loving smile.
The following day brought the imminent tears and guttural moans of grief when Kane showed his parents the final resting place of their daughter. Crumpled to her knees, his mother draped flowers over the cross that Kane had made from sticks.
His father gave a teary smile that Kane hadn’t expected. He cupped the side of his son’s tear soaked face and gently kissed him on the forehead. A wave of unconditional love flowed over Kane with such a cathartic intensity he could hold no longer. He collapsed into the embrace of his father and wept his heart out. The three of them sat by the gravesite until the sun began to set over the peaks of the quarry cliffs.
A feint breeze began to stir, carrying the playful giggles of little Eliza Matthews.