(c) 2012, by John T. M. Herres
“Are you sure this is it?”
Jake squatted down and leaned his head into the opening. Barely three-and-a-half feet high and two feet wide, the jagged, oblong hole seemed to want to swallow anyone who dared to enter. Moving forward, he withdrew his green flip-top lighter, the tell-tale ‘click-zip’ of the lid and striker echoing into the darkness. The flame leapt up and began an erratic dance, flashing yellow and blue, leaning toward the black emptiness as if it were eager to lead the way further into the tunnel.
“I got a breeze,” he said, the rock absorbing most of the timbre of his voice yet still bouncing it around a few times before fading entirely. “It has to go somewhere.” He backed out and stood, looking over to Harry for some kind of verification.
“Well, we didn’t come all this way for nothing.” They secured their backpacks, switched on their flashlights, and ducked into the entrance.
There were stories circulating the region that some others had tried exploring the cavern, never to be seen again. The boys shrugged off all warnings, dismissing them as “old wives’ tales”.
“Stick close in case there are surprises,” Jake called from the lead. No matter how confident he acted, something in the back of his mind told him not to go in.
“Not scared, are you?” Harry’s voice quavered slightly. Maybe he had the same misgivings, but Jake knew him well enough to realize he would never admit to any doubts.
“Dream on, Dude. You don’t sound too sure of yourself, though.” They had a long history of braving situations where others dared not. Bravado, false or not, had seen the 16-year-old duo through many a predicament neither would have ventured into alone.
“I’m fine. Just keep going.”
Jake slowly moved further in. He came to the first turn and looked back. The opening seemed as small as a pin hole. He hadn’t realized they had gone that far. “Still with me?” He was breathing a little harder than usual, and noticed Harry was too.
“Yeah, I’m okay. How’s it look up there?”
“It’s getting narrow. Curves to the right and looks like it slopes down.”
He heard Harry mumble, “Great,” but made no comment. They had room enough to duck-walk until the turn, then were forced to begin ‘army-crawling’ on bellies and elbows. Jake could hear Harry grunting as the two continued.
Jake stopped. “Wait,” he whispered.
“What, wait? You’re not going to chicken out, are you?”
“Shut up, Dude. I thought I heard something.”
Silence. A faint clicking, like a clock running out of juice. ‘Click…click, click’ Jake could not tell if it came from in front or behind.
Harry whispered back, “I don’t hear anything.”
“Maybe… It’s nothing. Come on.”
They began moving again. A tunnel branched off to the right, but looked to end ten feet or so in. They followed the main corridor further, but when it curved to the left, Jake let out an expletive.
“What is it?” Harry asked.
“It ends here, too.” He led his beam to all sides and saw nothing but solid rock. “Maybe that side tunnel was it.”
“You said it ended.”
“Yeah, but maybe it went up. I didn’t look real hard.”
They slowly inched backward to the offshoot, and Harry went in first. Jake followed when he heard him whistle.
“Not up,” Harry said. The tunnel had widened just enough for Jake to squeeze next to him. Harry pointed his light into a hole leading almost straight down. “How do we get down there?”
“You go first; just put your bag the other way around and press yourself against the side with your hands and feet, and go slowly.”
Harry took a deep breath and let it out, then eased into the shaft. Jake watched him descend, calling
encouragements. “You’re doing fine. Take it slow.” A soft noise made him turn his light towards the main shaft. It sounded like a whisper, but he knew they had to be the only ones in there. When he turned his attention back to the vertical tube, he could no longer see his friend.
“Harry!” he called into the darkness. “Are you okay? Did you find the bottom?” He got no reply: Indeed, he could not even be sure his calls made it all the way down; the solid rock seemed to absorb every noise.
He moved his pack to his front and slid into the passage. His heart hammered in his chest, but he knew he had to make sure his friend was not in trouble. As he inched lower, he tried to ease his fears by keeping his breathing regulated.
His light swung on the lanyard secured to his wrist, casting its beam in various directions, giving a strobe-like effect.
Suddenly, he heard another whispering noise to his left. He grabbed up his light and illuminated a side tunnel he would have missed in the pitch blackness of the subterranean passage.
“Hello? Harry, is that you?” The opening looked barely large enough to squeeze into. Figuring his partner could have gone that way, he pushed his pack in and wiggled through. He emerged into a larger section and was able to stand.
“Harry?” Again, only a dull echo returned. “Hello!” After stretching to calm the kinks built up from crawling for so long, he hitched his pack over one shoulder and moved on.
The corridor he worked his way through narrowed in places, causing him to have to squeeze sideways to progress, bag in his hand behind him. He kept calling out, if for no other reason than to hear some kind of noise other than his own heavy breathing pressing on his ears.
“This was a brilliant idea, Genius,” he muttered to himself. “Harry would have answered if he were in here.” Best to go back and continue down the shaft.
As he started to return, he felt a low rumble in the walls. Being wedged in the narrow passage, he could only dart his eyes and light to the top of the crack. Dust shimmered in the beam of light, followed by tiny bits of rubble.
“No, no, no…” escaped him as he fumbled forward as quickly as the limited space would allow. The vibrations in the stone pressing on him intensified, followed by larger rocks tumbling into the section he’d just vacated. He landed on his shoulder as the passage widened enough to release him, narrowly avoiding the last of the collapse.
The cave had gone dark; a complete darkness most could not understand unless they experienced it. He began feeling along the floor around him, trying to find his flashlight. Lots of dirt, some pebbles, but no light. Great, he thought, can’t get anywhere down here without a flashlight. It’s gotta be around here somewhere.
Inhaling the dust aggravated his throat, causing an uncontrollable coughing fit. He crossed his arm across his face to filter the air and sneezed several times.
His searching hand found his pack, as well as the large rock which had landed on it. When pulling on the bag did not free it, he got to his knees and grasped the sides of the stone, trying to roll it away. It finally gave enough to pull the canvas bag out from underneath. A blind inventory revealed what he hoped against; the spare batteries had been crushed. Even if he did find his lantern, he could not make it work.
Lying back, he began trying to calm his rising fear. His ears were playing tricks on his mind, hearing sounds which could not be there. Some sounded like children laughing. Probably just the final trickle of pebbles from the cave-in, he told himself. A deeper voice shushing the little ones. Has to be the echoes of my sneezing.
He heard his name being called. Jeez, now they know who I am, he thought. Something familiar about the voice, though. He heard it again; “Jake, where are you?” It was Harry!
“Harry, I’m here,” he called out. His friend had somehow found his way to the tunnel he was in. That meant a way through to the other side; he wasn’t trapped after all.
“Jake. Man, when I felt the tremor, I feared the worst.” Harry was at his side, helping him to his feet and handing him the canteen from his pack. Jake had to squint and turn his head away as his eyes readjusted to the light. “Are you okay? Anything hurt?”
“No, I’m okay. But my light’s missing.” He held up his arm to show the lanyard. They looked around, but to no avail. “Doesn’t matter much. A rock fell on my pack and crushed the spare batteries.”
“Lovely. But you forgot; I brought the spare flashlight.” He dug in his pack and handed it to Jake.
“I thought I heard voices just before you got here…”
“What, you trying to freak me out more than I already am? It must have been your imagination.” Harry led the way back the way he came from. “Just the dark and the tight spaces messing with your head.”
“Yeah, you could be right.”
The way seemed to be leading upward, but something felt wrong. After the first turn, they were back to scooting through on their stomachs again. They progressed two more curves when Harry stopped.
“Crap,” he said quietly.
“Oh, man, don’t tell me you’re lost.”
“Well, I was in a hurry trying to find you, and I guess I didn’t pay as close attention as I should have.”
“Think we should back-track to the collapse?”
“Are you kidding? We can’t turn around, and it’s too far to go backwards. We have to go on.”
Jake considered countering the statement, but realized Harry was right. A few minutes later, Jake felt a space above him, like a pressure releasing around him. He pointed the light up and saw a tunnel.
“Harry…” He stood up and started to climb in.
“That’s not where I came down from, are you sure you want to go that way?”
“We had to come down to get here,” Jake told him, “and this goes up. Logical choice.”
“Fine, then. Lead the way.”
Jake began ascending, finding it a little difficult to light the way and pull himself up at the same time. “Maybe we should have invested in some of those helmet lights,” he called back.
When he got no answer, he stopped and illuminated the chasm below him. “Harry?” No answer. Cursing under his breath, he went back down to the lower passage. “Blast it, Harry,” he said as he knelt back into the tight tunnel, “if you didn’t want to…” His voice trailed off as he realized his friend was not there.
He felt a bit of anger rising thinking that, for the first time in all their adventures, his companion had gone off and left him. He began crawling the direction they had been heading, calling out, anger escalating, and a little fear setting in.
He heard a faint echo of children’s laughter again. It seemed to be coming from in front of him, but his light showed an empty corridor of jagged rock. Then, what looked like a white face shot towards him. The translucent visage disappeared in an instant, but the hollow eyes and sharp teeth imprinted in his mind.
His light went out as he jerked back, slamming his head into the rough stone above him. Stars flashed before his blinded eyes and a pain to rival being whacked with a hammer caused him to cradle his cranium in his hands. Tears forced their way out of the corners of his eyes as he let flow a stream of words he would not want his parents to know he had uttered.
As the pain lessened to a throb, he massaged the back of his head with one hand and tapped his light on the wall, though a bit more forcefully than required, until it finally flickered back to life.
After his eyes readjusted to the brightness, he touched the wounded area of his skull and made sure it was not bleeding. No blood, but a moderate lump had risen. He had to blink forcibly to try to focus, then resumed his search for Harry.
With his vision still slightly blurred, he almost fell into a cavity in front of him. He shone his light down and spotted Harry lying face down at the bottom. Getting no response to his hails, he began looking for a way to get down there.
When he neared the bottom, he let go and dropped to the rough floor. His light fell to the ground as he tried to keep his footing and the bright flash before it went out told him the bulb broke.
Shucking his pack, he got to his knees and felt his way to Harry. He moved his hands across his prone friend, calling his name and shaking him to try to wake him. Harry began moving and a low groan escaped him.
“I don’t know,” Jake told him. “I was heading up the shaft, and you disappeared. When I came back down, all I could think of was how much a traitor you were for taking off without me.”
“No, I saw something. I called to you I was going to have a look. Then something rushed me and I fell down here.”
“My flashlight fell and the bulb busted. Where’s yours?”
They searched along the loose dirt and pebbles. “It’s no use,” Jake said. He stood slowly, one hand tracing the rough wall and the other above him in case a ledge awaited another meeting with his noggin.
“What are you doing?” Harry could obviously hear his movements.
“Gonna see if I can climb out of here.”
“That’s stupid. We can’t go anywhere without light.”
Jake sat back down. He didn’t like just sitting there, but Harry was right.
After what seemed hours, he slapped his thigh. “Jeez, I’m such an idiot!”
“No argument there,” Harry retorted. “What about this time?”
“What? You didn’t remember either, you dope.”
“What did we not remember?” He spoke slow and over-enunciated each word, reigning in the frustration.
“I have my lighter…” Harry let a snort, as Jake pulled it from his pocket. “Cover your eyes.”
He struck the flint, causing a flash, and in the brightness they both saw a form standing near them. Harry gave a shout as Jake instinctively turned the wheel again and the flame erupted, lighting the empty pit they sat in.
“Tell me you saw it, too.” Harry’s voice cracked, making him sound as if he were going through puberty again.
“Yeah. What was it?” Jake felt the cold sweat that had arisen instantly when the figure appeared. They were both breathing heavy with the sudden fear.
With the area illuminated, they quickly located the fallen flashlights. Harry turned his on and told Jake there should be a spare bulb inside the bottom of the other one.
That done, they both began climbing up. Reaching the top, they scrambled to the shaft Jake had been in and started ascending. They passed several openings in their haste. Jake kept climbing, occasionally looking back to make sure Harry continued following. He did not care to lose him again.
The passage began narrowing and soon was too small to continue. “We should take that last offshoot,” Harry said.
When they got inside, the cave began vibrating again. Fearing another collapse, Jake insisted that Harry move faster. The tunnel began filling with dust as they both tried to crawl quickly out of it.
Suddenly, Jake ran into his friend’s feet. “Keep moving!”
“I can’t; it’s collapsed here.” They were both beginning to cough from the dust in the air around them, but Jake knew they had to try to back up and try some other route.
He found an off shoot and scooted in, calling for Harry to follow. He could feel an upward slope to that passage. “I think this way is better. The dust is thinning.”
A cavern opened up in front of them, and they agreed to stop to rest. The canteen came out again and they both sipped from it in turn. “We need to take it easy on this,” Harry said. “No telling how long it’ll take us to get out of here.” He capped it and returned it to his pack.
“Think we should alternate the lights, too? We only have the two, and no spare batteries.”
“It would probably be best. I’ll go first, and you light from behind me.”
There were several passages leading out of the little room they rested in. Harry seemed to be trying to decide which to take, when Jake offered the lighter. He held the flame to each, and found a slight breeze coming from one of the larger ones.
They crawled through the darkness, the one light doing little to show the way. Unexpectedly, the ground just gave out beneath them. Their yells echoed all around them as they fell. The bottom came at them fast, and Jake heard a loud crack as Harry hit. The hard landing robbed him of the air in his lungs, too.
When he could breathe again, he checked himself for damage. He was okay, but he knew Harry had broken something. His calls went unanswered as he approached. Harry’s leg lay at a distorted angle, thigh bone protruding from the skin and blood soaking the ground around him.
Looking above, he knew he could not carry his friend all the way up, and even if he did, there was no way to tell which direction led out. A flash of movement pulled his attention to his left, and he screamed as the form he’d seen earlier rushed him and his light went out again.
In the darkness of the cave, wet squishing sounds echoed, and children’s laughter accompanied a deep-throated chuckle.