Caving

You sit in the far corner of your bed with a blanket over your head, trying not to think about Timothy Jones. This is not easy.

You have moved little since waking up. You have drawn all the blinds and retired to your room indefinitely. The girl who lives down the street from you would call this a “cave day.” She is up at dawn, every day, compulsively exercising her body. You can see from your bedroom window as she puts her body through tortuous calisthenics. She does not know what real torture is like. She does not know what a real cave is like.

A real cave starts with you and your friends. You liked to explore places, preferably while comfortably ensconced in your trustafarian equipment. You have sledged rapids. You have rappelled canyon walls. You have caved—if one can call it that—in Fiddler’s Green, 6 miles from the town center. You stayed overnight, playing your flashlights on the stalagmites and telling campfire tales. Children’s tales. You thought this made you an expert. You all thought you knew what you were agreeing to when you decided to try Hodag Caverns.

Gulp. Breathe.

You swelter. You turned off the air conditioning long ago, because its operation reminded you of the wind gnawing through the cave, and you cannot have that. You cannot take off the blanket, you need something soft touching you at all times to remind yourself where you are. Home. Home.

You left this shelter with Jan and Bill and (Timothy) Emily and Ted and all the others, not two brain cells to rub together between the lot of you. You were all young and amiable and thought that this would render you invincible.

Hodag Caverns had three and a half picks in the cave guide. Not outwardly hostile to the human body, like the sulfur caves to the south, but not for beginners. You thought yourselves not beginners because you dipped your toes in caving. You made base camp(yes that is what you called it) in the visitor’s cavern, discovered by a traveling merchant ad his mule in about 1865. There are still soot-marks on the ceiling.

The cave held a joy for you then, one you can no longer fathom as you sweat in your blanket fort. What possessed you to wedge your body down narrow hallways of limestone and basalt, giggling at every near miss? The caves here were not so much caves but cracks, into which you flung yourselves like flatworms exposed suddenly to light. You found nothing more interesting than clipped chins and grazed scalps, but you were enthusiastic nonetheless. You took a break for dinner at sundown: a pot of macaroni and cheese with a little booze someone snuck into a cantine.

Breathe. Breathe.

Nobody knows when Timothy slipped away. You’re almost certain that he wasn’t there at the start of dinner, but there had been so much darting in and out of cracks that when he finally called your names, one by one, your thoughts scattered like panicked crows.

There is a channel that is just beyond base camp, a corridor barely two feet across that branches out onto many small passageways. At the end of the hall is a horizontal crack in the ground that is ten inches tall at the opening, and in that crack was Timothy.

He did not sound panicked. Shine a flashlight, and all you could see are his feet and the white of his legs. What possessed him to crawl into it? A momentary caprice? Excitement? Perhaps his gaze fell on the crack and he realized it was one place none of you had yet explored? He scrambled forward and, as the ceiling closed in, inched forward. You would have stopped the second the ceiling grazed your head, you’re sure of it. Sixteen feet in, Timothy found the crack too narrow to proceed. Then he found he could not turn around.

Breathe.

You can’t take baths anymore. It is not the wetness, it’s the waiting. Just laying there, waiting for anything to happen. You have to move, you have to take control over your own space in order to feel alive. You were the one who inched in after Timothy to assess the damage.

He sounded sheepish, not really concerned over the fact that he was effectively stuck under tons of rock. This far into the tunnel and you could make out his red band shirt, the back of his head. You were sure, if he were able to turn his head, that Timothy would be smiling to ease your fears.

You all had to reconnoiter. You were no longer fearless explorers, you were a gaggle of frightened kids out way too long after curfew. The decision not to contact anyone was never verbalized, but immediately adhered to. You tied climbing ropes to Timothy’s ankles and pulled. The knot slipped. You re-tied it, better this time, and tried again. The cavern was not deep enough to get good traction. You thought of greasing him so he popped out, but nobody brought butter or oil or anything useful. You had no tools. You couldn’t chisel or lever or pry him out. You made a human chain, Bill grabbing Tim’s ankles, but your hands are not made for gripping hard enough and it disintegrated at the links.

You passed a wary night in the cave. You were all afraid to talk, that your cheer would be broken by Timothy’s sudden scream and the shifting of rock. Morning broke uneasy. You realized how you had come to rely on daylight to tell you when to do things.

Timothy was at a 45 degree angle in the earth. Even with your limited knowledge of physiology, you knew it couldn’t be good for him. Timothy was still cheerful, but you strained to hear the the tremor in his voice.

You kept trying. You made useless rope cradles and human chains and passed water down to him. Bill went to pee outside and ran into a park ranger, who asked him if he had a camping permit.

Breathe, one-two. Repeat. Slowly.

He broke. You can’t blame him. You all broke, sobbing your story out in a tangle of words. The ranger got down on hands and knees and shined a light down the crack and said son, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of anyone wedging themselves in that rock.

The parents came. They were all sanctimonious in their concern, all but Timothy’s father. He judged you with his eyes. As if you were responsible for his son’s imprisonment, not Timothy himself. You heard everything, every word he shouted down to his son. He loved him. He wasn’t mad. Timothy would get out. Each word is like a bolt, riveting your feet to the rock.

Timothy was disconcertingly cheerful. Maybe the blood was pooling in his brain. He said he wasn’t panicking, everyone should take care of themselves.

The rangers rigged a rope cradle. A local spelunking champion was called up, he wriggled into the crack after Timothy. Oil brought in by the gallon. All to no end.

Timothy’s father elected you to bring food and water down to him. His eyes brooked no argument.

Timothy was stranded with his arms stretched out in front of him. He could not grasp the trail mix and water you brought. You poured water past his mouth, encouraging him to lick it from the rock. There was nothing to be done about the food. You could see his face, but if he could turn it, you would be sure he was smiling.

You can never eat macaroni and cheese again. Nor anything dry, for that matter. Eating this food takes you back to the cave, to long nights stretched out uncomfortably on the stone floor. Timothy’s father won’t let you leave. He holds you in place with his frown, you must all wait vigil until his son is rescued. You need a shower. You need to eat food that hasn’t been dehydrated. Bill, in his infinite wisdom, packed bags and bags of jerky. You will die happy if you never have to chew on a lump of dried beef again. You crawl in the hole. You crawl out again. Timothy can’t eat. Timothy will not stop being cheerful.

The rangers spoke at the far end of the cave. You could hear every word because the walls bounce it back at you, the cave betrays their words. It was impossible, impossible, for him to be stuck where he was. Dehydration should have slimmed him down a little. Was he holding on with his hands? It’s not unheard of, delirium from lack of sustenance…

You stared accusingly at the back of Timothy’s head at the next snack run. You wanted him to turn around. You wanted to see that he was lying. He asked you to tell Emily that he loves her. He didn’t sound any different. This gnawed at you.

In your dreams, Timothy inches forward. He is going deeper and deeper into the earth to spite you. In your dreams, the others vanish, you must wedge yourself into the crack to scrape futily at the soles of his doc martens. You wake with the taste of stale water in your mouth.

The cave let the wind in. The cave betrays you. It won’t let you escape. Timothy’s father won’t let you leave. Six days. You could have been home by now. Jan’s mother collected her, swiftly and without argument. Bill’s boss called him in. Emily refused to go, but she fainted and had to be carried away. Ted just slipped away in the night.

It’s you. It’s only you in the cave. You and Timothy.

breathe

you can’t—

you can’t—

He refuses to stop talking. The rangers prod him to keep talking, so they know he’s still alive. Timothy’s father reads to him from the bible, verses and scriptures bouncing off the cathedral of the ceiling. There is nowhere to escape from the noise.

Something inside you stops working. You forget what life outside the cave has been like. You forget that there was anything other than crawling around closed spaces. One night, when everyone is asleep, you crawl down to Timothy’s body with a piton. You just want to hurt him, just a little, to show that he is still human. You hit the back of his calf, not hard, but enough to draw blood. Timothy doesn’t say anything. You are hyperventilaing. Timothy is sucking up all the air. Timothy wedged himself down here. Timothy won’t let you leave. You are no longer sure if he turned his head that it would be Timothy’s face. You hit his leg again. And again.

Timothy laughs. He asks what you’re doing back here.

It’s his tone. His completely calm, slightly jovial tone of voice that throws you into a frenzy. The piton rings off the rock wall as you swing it again and again. The wind over the rock is screaming and you’re being dragged back over the rock and suddenly you’re out in the open air and your face is cut and bruised from the rock and you realize that the screaming is coming from you.

You leave your home to tackle the jogging girl as she runs by. Back and forth, back and forth, you scream as your blanketed body bears her to the ground. What would she know about a real cave anyway.

They bear you away from the cave in blankets. Stress, they say, lack of nutrition. It’s not your fault. Nothing is ever anyone’s fault. You get the news that Timothy is still down there. He will never get out. The cave is off-limits now, to everyone. The cave betrays everyone.

The girl squalls on the street, flailing her limbs, owning the space around her. You do not belong here. Run. Run back to your room, back to the soft cave. Close the door. Block the lights. Turn your face from the door. That way, when they come to get you, they won’t know who it is.

There was never any sun. There was never anything but the enclosed spaces, of crawling in and out. The mattress is the rock floor beneath you, the air conditioning sobs and sighs like the wind gnawing through rock.

And Timothy has pinned you down here with him.

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