Posted by: lordkyler | April 10, 2014

Cavern – Short Story

“We shouldn’t have come down here, Dustin,” said Eliza, shivering slightly in the dampness of the cave.

“What? And let some teenagers get to it first? I don’t want to find another box filled with manure and dirty magazines,” Dustin replied. “You’re not scared of the dark, are you?”

Eliza rolled her eyes. “No, dear.”

“Well then what are you afraid of?”

Eliza wished she could put it into words. Dustin was the adventurous type, which was the reason she had been attracted to him in the first place, but sometimes he went too far. His last obsession, urban exploration, had nearly gotten them arrested for trespassing, and a few months before that, his attempts at parkour had led to a broken leg. He’d had to walk down the aisle with a crutch at their wedding.

Eliza had grown to love the thrills associated with these adventures, but as the practical one, she was hesitant to push too far, while Dustin’s ambition far exceeded his capacity or common sense. And so it was with his latest passion, geocaching. Geocachers used GPS devices to find hidden boxes at certain coordinates. Once the box was found, fellow geocachers would often take and leave items as mementos. Of course, not everybody played nicely, explaining why Dustin was so anxious to reach the box first.

“What if we’re trespassing?” Eliza argued. “There were fences. This could be government property.”

“Well, somebody had to get the box down here,” Dustin said. “It’s not as if we’re hurting anything.”

“I’m more worried about anything hurting us.”

“We’ll be fine!” Dustin said. He scrambled over a boulder, remarkably spry for a man nearly forty. Eliza sighed and followed him. If he hurt himself, he’d need somebody to go get help.

The cave was surprisingly large. After scouting around for nearly an hour in the forest above, they had finally found a narrow fissure in a tumble of boulders, and quickly realized their prize must be underground. A rusty fence circled the stones, but it was loose and they pushed past it easily. Once inside, it had widened considerably, sloping downward into the earth. Dust and leaves underfoot quickly turned to stone, and then to tumbles of rock.

When they began to come across underground pools and clusters of stalactites, Eliza had begun to grow nervous. Then they had started to get to rough terrain, steep slopes, narrow gaps, loose gravel underfoot. Even Dustin began to grow wary, double-checking at the GPS every few minutes. He was surprised it still worked down here.

“We’re almost there,” he said, as much to reassure himself as Eliza. “Less than two hundred feet.”

“Good,” said Eliza. Her flashlight swept back and forth constantly, like a searchlight. It seemed pitifully dim against the utter blackness that surrounded them. “I hope this was worthwhile.”

“The posting went up just this morning,” said Dustin. “And somebody dedicated enough to hide it down here must be serious about it.”

Eliza was struck with a sudden thought. “Dustin?”

“Hm?” Dustin murmured, squeezing through a narrow gap between walls.

“There’s only one way down here, right?” She sidled through behind him.

“Yeah, no forks or anything. Don’t have to worry about getting lost.”

“That’s not what I meant. Somebody had to come down here to place the box, right?”

Dustin began to pick his way down a series of naturally formed steps. “Right.”

“So how did he get past the fence?”

Dustin stopped in his tracks. “Well, the same way we did, of course.”

“No way. That metal was rusty and brittle. There’s no way anybody could have bent that back perfectly without it showing.” The sound of water dripping from the ceiling  punctuated the silence.

“There was a gate on the fence. Maybe they had a key.”

“The padlock was just as bad as the rest of the fence. You’d have to break it to get it off. And it was topped with barbed wire, so they didn’t climb.”

“Maybe they climbed down the cliff face,” Dustin said in exasperation. “Who cares? It’s just around the corner and we’re the first ones here. Let’s just get it and get out.”

Still seems like a lot of trouble for just a box, Eliza mused. Why not just push through the fence like we did? And why head clear down to the bottom of the cave? But, being so close to the goal, she pushed her questions aside. It would make for an interesting discussion on the ride home.

She almost ran into Dustin as she turned the corner. He had stopped right in the middle of the path, seemingly frozen in place.

“What? What is it?” Eliza asked. Wordlessly, Dustin stepped aside, allowing her to see into the cavern beyond. Nothing. Total blackness, like ink. She flashed her light back and forth, but she could see nothing. “What the hell?”

“This place must be enormous,” said Dustin reverently. He knelt down and picked up a stone, then flung it into the darkness as hard as he could. One second… two… three… four… a splash.

“It’s a lake?” Eliza said incredulously. She knelt beside her husband and scooped up a handful of gravel, then threw it in a vertical arc. A trail of splashes echoed through the hall, indicating water as far as she could throw. They looked out at the water for a moment.

“Well, that’s a dead end,” said Eliza. “The listing was a hoax. Let’s go.”

She began to stand, but Dustin gripped her arm with iron fervor. “Wait! We find an underground cavern with a huge lake and you don’t want to explore?”

“We have no idea how deep it is,” Eliza said. “And I don’t know about you, but I didn’t bring a canoe. What are we supposed to do down here in the dark?”

Dustin gave a mischievous grin. “We could go skinny-dipping.”

She gave him a half-angry shove, pushing him into the wall. “Yeah, just you, me, and those creepy blind salamander things. God, you’re such a dork. Besides, the water is probably freezing.”

Dustin took a cautious step forward until he found the edge of the water, and ran his hand through it. “It’s warm,” he said, surprised.

“No way,” Eliza retorted, but when she touched it, she found the lake was actually pleasantly warm.

“It must be a hot spring.”

“That’s great and all, but we need to go now. It’s been hours, and I’m tired and hungry.”

“Just a few minutes. I need some pictures or something.”

“Dustin!”

“Just eat a granola bar or something, okay, hon?”

Eliza stomped away from the lake, muttering angrily to herself as she dug out a granola bar. Dustin rummaged in his pack until he found his disposable camera. He began snapping pictures, the flash revealing a few nearby details with each camera flash. From what he could tell, the cavern was perfectly circular, the walls strangely smooth and glossy, the ceiling devoid of stalactites, the water undisturbed save for the slightest of ripples from their earlier stones.

Eliza was starting on her second granola bar when Dustin spotted something out in the middle of the lake. He tried to take a few more pictures for a better look, but the camera was spent. He cursed to himself. Digging in his pack, he found a few glowsticks. Cracking them into life, he waited until their pale green glow reached full strength.

“Honey, I’m going to turn off the lights,” he said, eyes fixed on the darkness.

“Are you crazy?” Eliza shrieked.

“Just for a minute,” he said. “Nothing’s going to happen.”

He switched off his flashlight, make sure to keep it firmly in hand, and after a long moment’s hesitation, Eliza did too, cursing vehemently to herself under her breath.

“Baby, please be quiet. I need to see.”

“That doesn’t even… whatever.” The sooner he got the curiosity out of his system, the sooner they could go. She knew from past experience that it was nearly impossible to dissuade him once he had something in his sights.

Dustin slid three glowsticks into the water, pushing them off. They glided tranquilly across the still waters of the cave like tiny ships, sailing, sailing, and then coming to a sudden stop, right where he had seen the object. It seemed there was an island right in the middle of the cave.

Dustin knew in that moment that he had to go to that island or the curiosity would drive him mad for the rest of his life. But there was no way Eliza would let him go that far. He briefly debated the pros and cons, and decided to go for it. He might sleep on the couch for a week, but he’d regret not seeing the island on his deathbed.

Moving quickly in the darkness, he shucked off his outer clothing and began to wade into the lake, moving as silently as possible. There was sand underfoot, the softest sand he had ever felt. Soon the ground fell away beneath him, and he began a quiet breaststroke.

“Dustin? I’m getting freaked out here. Are you okay? Honey?”

Dustin glanced back over his shoulder, and saw Eliza’s flashlight flicker on again. He didn’t say anything. He was nearly halfway to the island.

“Dustin!” Eliza said louder. She rushed around the corner, and found nothing. “Dustin!” she screamed, the sound piercing and magnified a hundredfold by the circular cavern.

“I’m here,” Dustin confessed. He turned and waved to her while treading water. Her flashlight quickly found him, blinding him slightly.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she snapped.

“There’s an island!” he said, trying to sound innocent.

“You better swim back here right now!”

“Just one minute!” He began to stroke backwards, hoping to reach the island while he kept her distracted with argument.

“No, damn it. It’s always another minute with you, and usually it means you’re a minute away from an early funeral.”

He was close now, only about twenty feet. Stall a little longer. “C’mon, baby. Just a sec.”

“No! No more secs, okay?” Well, he didn’t see any reason to take it that far. “Just forget about the stupid island and we’ll go home and take up a hobby that won’t kill us.”

Ten feet. “Like what?”

“Gardening, I don’t know! Who cares?”

Sand under his feet. He had made it. “Fine! Fine. I’m sorry. You’re right, as usual. Just give me a second to catch my breath and I’ll swim right back and we’ll go home.”

Stony silence. “We’ll stop by a restaurant on our way back.”

“You had better stop by the freakin’ jewelry store, buddy.” Dustin flinched in anticipation, but he was on the island, so that took the sting out of it.

“Sure thing, babe. Just let me rest a minute.”

She said nothing, so he decided to finally turn and examine his promised land. One of the glow-sticks was nearby, so he picked it up and had a look around. The island was perfectly circular, surrounded by the same feather-soft sand as the other shore. Moving in a little further, the sand was suddenly interrupted by a shelf of polished granite jutting six inches straight up, black as pitch and smooth as silk.

“What in the world?” Dustin began. Hesitantly, he stepped up on the slab, and found another step shortly beyond it, and then another and another, circular steps growing smaller and smaller as he moved up, like a stepped pyramid. Dustin froze.

“Hey honey?” he called.

“What?” came the reply.

“Could you check the GPS and see if we’re close to the box?”

Eliza answered a few moments later, sounding exasperated. “Looks like… it should be right about where you are.”

Dustin resumed climbing the stairs, anticipation and sudden dread building simultaneously in his gut. What was at the top of the stairs? Usually the geocaching boxes were just metal cubes stuck under a bridge or a bush. He reached the summit of the stairs, and saw thorough the dim alien light of the glowstick an ominous black pedestal. On top of it lay a small wooden chest, carved of some gleaming wood and carved with strange symbols that didn’t seem to stay in one place.

“Okay, you’ve had long enough,” Eliza shouted. “You can swim back now.” The box seemed to draw his attention like a magnet, ensnaring his attention.

“Sure thing, honey,” he said offhandedly.

“What’s going on over there? I swear, if I have to swim out there and get you, it won’t be pretty.”

The box seemed an ominous thing, somehow, a secret belonging to someone else, a place even he ought not tread. But how could he come all this way and not look in the box?

“Dustin?” Eliza’s call had changed from anger to concern. “Dustin? Please answer me, baby. Dustin!”

Just lift the lid and look inside. Somebody left it to be found, right? Why else would they put the coordinates on the internet? Just one quick look, and that would be all.

Pleading from the far shore now. “Dustin, please.”

Caution fought with curiosity, and love wrestled with life, but in the end, he could not resist. He had never been able to resist.

“I’ll be there in just a moment, honey. Just a single, solitary second.”

“Dustin, please, just come back, that’s all you have to do, just come back-”

Dustin lifted the lid and looked inside.

Something looked back.

To Be Continued

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