By Paige Wyatt
There’s a special sort of melancholy in finding things as a deceased loved one left them. The coffee cups dirty in the kitchen sink, the reading glasses on the nightstand, the unfurled throw blanket next to the cold fireplace–all are reminders of a life well-lived, a life worth remembering. This life happened to belong to my father.
“Hey Ali,” Paul called from the living room. “Come check this out.”
I tore myself away from the unfolded newspaper in the kitchen, dated three weeks ago–the day my father had his heart attack–and joined my little brother on the couch where he held an old photo album in his lap. He turned the pages with care, making sure not to smudge the sepia toned photos that rested between the clear cellophane. “Check this out! It’s Ralphie!”
I squinted at a small polaroid, and sure enough, there was our first family dog. Ralphie was a Boston Terrier my father got from a friend who worked with a rescue service. Paul and I loved Ralphie immediately, and we were both inconsolable for days after he disappeared.
“Man, I still can’t believe Dad lied to us all those years,” Paul said, more amused than upset. “He could’ve just told us Ralphie was lost in the cave.”
I nodded, remembering the incident well. I was playing outside, walking Ralphie, and he’d gotten away from me. I couldn’t have been more than five, but I chased him across the yard, down the hill, and to the mouth of the cave entrance that was on the edge of our property. I cried for days, and Dad tried to find him, but eventually the party line was that he went home to be with his family.
I shook my head to clear the feeling of helplessness away. It didn’t work. “He was trying to keep us from going in there. Keep us safe.”
Paul placed the album on the coffee table atop the unopened mail that had accumulated since Dad died. “He was good at that.” He ran a hand through his dirty blonde hair–the exact same shade as our father’s in his younger years. “But haven’t you always wanted to know what’s down there?”
I narrowed my eyes. “In the caves?”
My little brother’s face lit up like he was a kid again, “Yeah! Like go down there and take a quick peek.”
“I don’t know how to explore a cave and neither do you, idiot.” I punched him lightly on the arm. “We’d get lost down there and die.”
“Come on,” he said as he paced around the room. “I bet it wouldn’t be that hard. Just get some flashlights and some boots and go down there for an hour.”
I glanced at the clock. The weight of the last three weeks hooked into me and exhaustion was a constant weight. Since I’d been back home, I counted down the hours until I could go to bed. Unfortunately it was only 3PM. Too early to acceptably turn in. “I’m so tired, Pauly.”
He stopped pacing at the sound of my voice. Grief had stricken him, too, but he dealt with it in action, like a shark that never stopped moving. Paul has been in continuous motion since the day he was born. I was the opposite. I built a wall around myself so impenetrable that not even my baby brother can break through. He recognized the cadence, the familiar dead tone I got when I was overwhelmed.
“Come on, Ali. Don’t do this. Don’t shut me out,” he said as he sat next to me.
I ran my hands through my hair. “I’m not.”
“You are, but I know what will help.” He tugged on a lock of my hair and I met his eyes. “Exploring a cave!”
Despite the bright morning sun, the cave mouth looked darker than I remembered. Paul handed me a headlamp he bought at the hardware store last night, and I placed it on my head. My backpack was filled with water, rope, a lighter, protein bars, and a first aid kit. Paul promised we’d only be down there for an hour, but I wanted to be prepared for anything.
Paul practically bounced out of his boots to descend. “Ready?” His headlamp was already turned on, one foot in the cave mouth and the other pointed toward me.
“One hour. When the timer goes off after thirty minutes, we’re turning back.” I held up my watch to stress that I planned to time it all.
“Yeah, yeah. Let’s go!”
I took a deep breath and stepped forward. Together, we entered the abyss.
The headlamps were a lifesaver. Keeping a steady stride proved difficult as we traversed the rocky floor. It was slippery, too, probably from rains, and the air was damp and dank like an old basement. I trudged on, trying hard not to fall as I stepped over the uneven ground. I had no idea how Paul was going so quickly, but I didn’t ask.
“Whoa,” he marvelled as we continued to walk in darkness. His voice echoed off the rock, an intrusion in a sacred place. “This is so cool. Don’t you think so?”
“Uh, yeah, I guess,” I said. “I would describe it as creepy, actually.”
Paul’s flashlight beam shook as he climbed over a boulder. “You don’t think this is awesome? It’s one of nature’s wonders. The Mammoth Cave system is the largest in the world and we’re in it!”
Truthfully, I was grateful for the conversation. If it was just quiet footsteps on the rock, I would have run out of there at the first sign of anything unnatural. We entered the belly of a beast that was asleep before, but as we went deeper and deeper, it slowly started to realize that we’re there. The air grew cooler as we descended at a slight decline, going down bit by bit and step by step.
“Be careful,” I warned. “I don’t want to go too deep.”
Paul sat on a rock, ran his hands through his hair, and let out a deep sigh. “I can’t figure out which way we came from.”
“What.” It wasn’t a question, but a statement of shock.
“I’m sorry, OK? We’re gonna have to retrace our steps, I guess,” he said. “I’m sure if we just go back–”
“You’re not serious.” The anger in my voice sounded like a shout in the echoing caverns. “You said you knew the way back and that you were keeping track.”
He stood up and faced me, his headlamp shining in my eyes. “I was! I don’t know what happened. Everything twists and turns so much in here.”
“I can’t believe this,” I laughed humorlessly.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s see if we can retrace our steps.
We couldn’t. Three hours later and we were still walking in circles deep in the caverns, moving from room to room, thinking we saw light but realizing it was the reflection of our headlamps off the glistening walls that felt like they’d close in on us.
My panic turned quickly to exhaustion. Even Paul stopped moving after we’d been down there for five hours. “I can’t keep walking,” he said as he sank onto the floor.
My legs burned and my back ached. I needed to rest, too. I pulled out my phone for the hundredth time that hour, but the “no service” letters felt like a blow to my chest. “Well, there’s no way we’re getting out of here as tired as we are.”
He handed me a pop tart and a bottle of water, then scooted so that we were back to back, the way we used to sit together as kids during a thunderstorm. It was comforting to know he was there, still after all this time, protecting me like he always had. Even though he was younger, he was still my best friend. The anger and frustration I held melted away as we both sat in the silent, watchful darkness.
I swallowed the last of the pop tart, took a swig from a half-empty water bottle, and curled into a ball. I fell asleep almost instantly, sinking so far into unconsciousness that I barely noticed when something grabbed my leg.
“Hey, hey, Alice?” Paul’s voice pulled me back to my father’s couch with warm afternoon sunlight streaking across the wood floors. “You’re doing it again.”
I sat up and rubbed my eyes. “Huh?”
Paul sat on the couch next to me, his hand on my leg. “You were talking in your sleep. Something about being lost.”
I glanced around the room, bewildered. “How did we make it out?”
Paul’s face contorted with confusion. “Get out of where?”
“The cave!” I exclaimed. “We were lost down there. You got us lost.”
He sighed. “Alright, alright. I get it. You don’t want to explore the cave.”
“You mean we didn’t go down there?” I asked.
Paul’s confusion turned to concern. “We’ve been here all day. I mean, I did ask you to go into the cave with me, but then you mumbled about being tired and fell asleep.”
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