This story is by Kevin Hudson and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
An old sump hole lingered in the California hills where I grew up. For decades, oil companies pumped crude out of the ground, and whatever they didn’t cart away in pipes and trucks was dumped into a large pit and abandoned.
Over the years, a lot of smelly tar filled up that lonely hole, and the foul lake not far from my home became a local curiosity.
“Check it out!” I shouted to a group of kids in my fifth-grade class, trying to get their attention. I’d trapped a bug in the sticky goo and was watching it struggle, attempting to free itself before it succumbed to the fumes and exhaustion and sank into the muck.
“That’s rad!” someone said.
“That’s disgusting,” said another.
Opinions were mixed regarding this first of my many life-and-death experiments, and none endeared me to anyone or won people over as friends.
At dinner, my parents were even less supportive. “You be careful, Billy,” my mother warned. “People can get trapped there too.”
But lonely and without any friends, I was already as good as stuck.
Over the years, many stories circulated about animals becoming lost to the sump hole. Dogs, cats, squirrels, raccoons, and even coyotes could be heard howling late at night as they sank down inside the thick black sludge.
Then, one day, just as I was about to feed a mouse to my pet snake, a voice came floating in.
“I’ll be your friend. Bring it to me.”
I couldn’t find the voice’s source, but I knew who it was and, more importantly, what it wanted.
I carried the rodent into the hills and dropped it on the sump hole’s thin, dry crust. The unsuspecting mouse sniffed, unsure what was happening, until its back left foot cracked through, becoming trapped. Its pink eyes bulged, panicking as it reached back, desperate to free itself. Then its front foot got stuck. With two feet sinking, it struggled harder, cracking through more surface and trapping more body. I smiled, watching it squirm and squeal, and was satisfied with the final outcome – the mouse disappearing into the inky blackness.
Some might call the small bubble that rose up and popped the mouse’s last breath. But to me, it was the sump hole’s way of saying thanks.
“Bring me some more,” my new sump friend begged.
I began placing humane “catch-and-release” traps around my neighborhood and carted the detainees up to that quiet spot in the hills. Squirrels, rats, and occasional cats were all set free and welcomed into the sump hole’s sticky embrace.
And with each new delivery, it always said, “Thank you.”
Lest you think this friendship one-sided, my experiences with “Sumpy” taught me a lot about situations where people become stuck. Miserable jobs and toxic relationships, and after all my lessons, I believed with absolute certainty no one would ever stick it to me.
Over time, my neighbors began whining about the sump hole’s strong petroleum smell and begged someone to do something about it. In its wisdom, the city paved over the Sumpy, sealing it shut. I cried, watching as the last of my old friend disappeared beneath a thick layer of asphalt for what I believed would be forever.
While most people forgot, my fascination with the sump hole remained, and on weekends, I would wander up into those lonely hills to visit my old friend. Neglected by everyone, Sumpy looked like a dusty parking lot with no trace of its former oily smell and glory. I could walk on it, caress it with my hands, even bend down close, putting an ear to listen.
“Free me,” the sump hole begged from deep below. “Let me breathe again.”
“I will,” I promised.
Rushing home, I grabbed my father’s hammer and returned, banging on the asphalt until I gave myself blisters and started bleeding.
I fretted over my failure for days until, finally, I got an idea.
The following Friday night, right after the big high school football game, I carried a wooden sign to the road nearest the sump hole: “INSPIRATION POINT – FREE PARKING.”
It wasn’t long before a stylish convertible pulled up.
“What’s this?” a handsome jock and his pretty girlfriend asked.
“A quiet place,” I told them. “Private.”
“You going to watch?” his girlfriend teased.
“Nope,” I assured them, smiling innocently. “It’s all yours.”
“Whatever,” the boyfriend mumbled, tossing me a dollar tip and turning onto the small dirt road.
As soon as they were in, I took down my sign, closed the gate, and observed them stop in the middle of the parking lot – hopefully, their weight would suffice.
Not wanting them to know I’d lied, I watched and listened from a safe distance, out of sight, but eager to see how this new experiment would go.
They made out for a while and then got into it. After about ten minutes of steady movements, the car’s tires began quietly cracking through.
“What’s that sound?” the girlfriend asked, hearing the gentle hiss of my friend waking up and taking its first breath.
“Don’t worry, babe,” the jock told her. “No one’s going to bother us.”
Undeterred, they continued, neither realizing anything was wrong until the car had sunk low enough that Sumpy began oozing up and over the doors.
“What the hell?” the jock shouted when the tar seized his leg. Then the girlfriend screamed, her hair matted in the oil. My slimy friend picked up speed, swirling around and attacking like a predator. And the more they struggled, the faster the car sank into the powerful, all-consuming sludge.
In shocked silence, I observed a struggle I’d seen countless times. Arms becoming stuck, then legs and heads. And no matter how hard any of my subjects fought, the ravenous sump hole always won.
Just as my mother warned me, people could also become stuck.
Realizing I’d gone too far, I panicked, rushing down and wanting to help. But it was too late; the car and its passengers had disappeared, leaving only a large hole in the middle of the asphalt.
Sumpy, now free, gazed up again at the full moon shining overhead.
“Thank you,” it bubbled. “Thank you.”
Horrified, I staggered around the sump hole’s edge. How deep did it go? The pit went deeper than the height of a car, but by how much? Two feet? Three feet? How many cars and people could it hold? And what if its needs were infinite, impossible to satisfy?
Then something caught my shoe – Sumpy tugging at me with sticky tendrils.
“Join me,” it begged. “I’m lonely.”
“No!” I screamed, scrambling back, losing my sneaker and barely escaping its grimy grip. The sump hole dragged my checkered slip-on back and down into the slimy mess. That’s when I realized it could have been me.
Shaken at almost getting stuck myself, I hurried home, hiding in my room and vowing never to return.
For weeks, newspapers ran articles searching for the missing couple, but no one ever found them or learned of my mistake.
As soon as I could, I moved away to college. And though some students went home at breaks to visit friends and family, I never did for fear of getting stuck there.
To this day, I think about those California hills. And when I do, my mind gets trapped worrying. Did the sump hole find another lonely, gullible kid to do its bidding, perhaps enticing one or more to join it? Or did the Oil Company finally clean up their mess? And if they pumped out all that nasty sludge, how many cars and skeletons might they uncover? And if they did find something foul, would they ever come clean about it?
This secret legend will haunt me to my grave.
Sometimes, I wonder if the guilt I’m stuck with will ever go away. Or if, like the sump hole, you can pave over it with a wife, kids, and career successes but still find it lurking below the surface, just waiting for something weighty enough to crack through.