by Anthony R. Karnowski
“Tell me one more time why I agreed to this.”
Karen looked at me with embers behind her green eyes. The headlamp she wore cast a glare as she stared at me, making it difficult to tell if the fire there was at all playful.
“Because,” she said, her tone suggesting she was more irritated than I’d hoped. Not that I could have hoped for anything else, really. “You’re the one who is always bitching about needing some sort of adventure. Something exciting. Well here we are: excitement coming out of our asses! Happy now?”
She was right. As always. I had been the one that insisted we explore the cave we found while hiking. I had, in fact, been the one that insisted we go for a hike at all. Everyone else would have been happy hanging at the camp and swimming or reading or doing anything other than wandering aimlessly through a cave that had so many passages you had to wonder how the ground didn’t collapse.
Still, her tone had been a little sharper than necessary, but I guess that’s marriage for you. Some days one or the other of you is wound just a little tighter than usual, and the words come with just a little too much zing attached.
I swallowed the burst of anger in my throat and reminded myself that we were all tired. We had hiked for nearly three hours before we even found the cave, and the four of us had wandered for close to another three before we would admit to ourselves we were lost. That had been nearly six hours before.
And still, the fact that it was my fault we were there hadn’t changed.
So, I left off my usual sarcasm. I took out my water bottle and had a long drink before I leaned against the wall and said: “Sorry. I’m just a nervous talker.”
“I know, babe.” She smiled weakly, but I could tell her exhaustion had her feeling raw on the inside.
“I think we should all take a rest for a minute. What do you two think?”
Rachel dropped her pack to the ground and plopped down beside it. She unzipped it and dug around inside for a moment before pulling out a water bottle and two Clif bars. She tossed one to her husband, Alex, before tearing into her own. He sat down beside her and took a drink from her water bottle when she offered. The four of us had been friends for well over a decade, but I could tell that at that moment they both wished they’d never met either of us before.
When they finished eating, Rachel looked at her watch and let out a bewildered sigh.
“Well, I think we should think about setting up some sort of camp. We’ve been walking all day. And all night for that matter. I need to just sit here for a while or I’m going to collapse. It’s dark outside, anyway. We probably wouldn’t even be able to see the exit.”
“I agree,” Alex said, leaning back against the rock wall. “I could use a little more to eat, and maybe even a few hours sleep. I hate to ask this, but does anyone have any idea where we are?”
“We’ve been in this same stretch of cave for the past three hours,” Karen said. “Which makes me think we’re nowhere near where we first entered. There were tons of side tunnels coming off that first tunnel.”
“Yeah,” I said, remembering. There had been one to our left after only about fifteen minutes after we set foot inside. From there we passed a tunnel on the right or left every twenty minutes or so. “We’d walked for close to two hours before we made that first right-hand turn.”
“That was when we first heard the water,” Karen said, her eyes glazed with memory. “We never did find that damn river.”
The statement hung in the air like an insult handed to you just after someone socked you in the gut. We all felt it, but it stung me the most. Just like all the other events of the day, it had been my idea that we try to find it, after all. The whole day had just been one bad choice after another.
“So, we should turn back, then, right?” Rachel asked, looking first to Alex, then to Karen, and then, finally, to me.
It seemed that no one wanted to be the first to speak. There was something in the question that seemed charged, loaded. Like it might explode in our mouths if we tried to answer. We all just sat there, leaning against the rough stone walls, looking at anything but each other.
“It doesn’t really help that none of us know what we’re doing,” Alex said.
We all agreed silently. For my part, I had never been in a cave that hadn’t also been some kind of tourist attraction, and I was pretty sure that was true for the others as well. That fact alone should have been enough to keep us all outside.
“We should never have come in here,” I said.
“Well now,” Karen said. “That’s not going to help us get out of here.”
“I know. I just feel like shit for getting us all into this.”
“As you should,” Alex said, grinning beneath the light of his headlamp. “Come on, man. We all chose to come in here. You didn’t force anyone.”
I frowned, wanting to believe him. I didn’t.
“I say we all try to get some sleep,” I said, changing the subject. “We can try to come to a decision once we’ve had a bit of rest. Right now I’m so tired I can barely think at all, much less straight.”
Everyone nodded and grumbled their consent. We spent the next few minutes digging Clif bars and individually wrapped cheeses out of our packs and then stuffing our faces. We made sure not to eat all of our rations, though, just in case it took us longer to get out of the cave than we were all hoping. After our impromptu dinner by headlamp, Rachel and Alex curled up together beside the cave wall. They mumbled a half-hearted “good-night” and then turned off their lights. I could see they were using their packs as pillows, and I wondered vaguely if that was comfortable.
Karen and I decided to try the same arrangement, but without much luck. She had always been prone to insomnia, even in the least stressful of times. With a real reason to be anxious—like being lost in a cave, for example—sleep was as unattainable for her as the Fountain of Youth is for everyone else. After what felt like hours, but was probably only a few minutes, she sat up and whispered to me in the dark.
“It’s no use,” she hissed. “I can’t sleep. I’m going to go a little further down the passage to see if I can makes heads or tails of where we are. It might help us decide if we should turn around or not.”
“I’ll go with you,” I whispered back, sitting up.
“No. Try to get some sleep. I won’t go far.”
“I really think we should stick together, Karen. What if something happens and you get hurt?”
“I’ll be fine. Don’t worry. Hang here and get some rest. If I’m not back in half an hour or so, come find me.”
After eight years of marriage, I recognized that tone. There would be no arguing with her now that her mind was made up. I could try, of course, but I knew how it would end: both of us pissed at each other and even more unhappy than we were when we started. She was going to do what she wanted no matter how I felt about it.
“Okay,” I said, more than a little irritated.
“Don’t worry,” she said again. “I won’t be gone long.”
She turned and switched her headlamp on. I leaned against the wall and watched as it moved steadily away from our mock camp. After a few minutes, the passage must have curved, because the light vanished. I looked at my watch. It was about two o’clock in the morning. I would give her half an hour and then I’d go after her if she wasn’t back yet.
I rested my head against the wall and closed my eyes for half a second. The stress of the day and all the energy I had spent hiking worked together so that that brief instant was all it took for me to fall dead asleep.
* * * * *
Rachel pushed me gently, and I woke with a start. A quick glance at my watch told me it was just after five in the morning.
“Fuck!” I said aloud, and then to myself: Why do I screw everything up?
“Is Karen back?” I asked. As I looked around the makeshift camp, the panic in my throat eased for an instant as the hope that she’d returned while I slept popped into my mind.
Before Rachel shook her head in response, though, I knew she hadn’t. She would have woken me.
After spending about five seconds making sure I wasn’t leaving anything behind, I turned in the direction I last saw Karen heading and was off.
“When did she leave?” Rachel asked from behind me after a quarter of an hour. I hadn’t turned to check, but I could sense that both she and Alex had followed me from the start.
“Around two,” I said, not slowing my pace.
“You let her go off alone?”
“Come on, Rachel. You know how she can be sometimes. I tried to go with her, but I got the feeling she was just wanting to be alone for a little while. She’s probably just up the tunnel here, curled up asleep.”
She sounded about as certain as I felt. Karen required more solitude than most people, and sometimes if she could go off by herself for a little while she could get around her insomnia long enough to catch a little rest. But, unfortunately, as the minutes ticked by and turned into an hour, we still hadn’t found her. Asleep or otherwise.
After two hours of walking I was growing very nervous and was having trouble keeping myself calm enough to keep moving. Just when I thought I couldn’t handle anymore uncertainty, we came to a fork.
“Fuck,” I muttered.
“What do we do now?” Rachel asked.
“When in doubt, Merriadoc,” Alex said from behind, “follow your nose.”
I wanted to laugh. I did. He was trying to ease the tension we were all feeling, but I just didn’t have it in me.
Which way did she go?
I felt so desperate that for a few minutes I actually did try to sniff out a difference between the two tunnels. Maybe if I’d had any experience spelunking I could have detected something, but to me both passages had the same musty dirt smell that I’d always associated with basements and Halloween Haunted Caves.
Even though I couldn’t smell a difference, after a moment of standing there I thought I did detect something. Not in the smell, but in the sound. There was a deep, rhythmic pulse that I almost felt more than heard coming from the right-hand passage. It was a very slow and drawn out sound, but it repeated over and over: hhhuuuuuuuhhhhhh-nnnuuuuuuuhhhhhh. Hhuuuuuuuhhhhhh-nnnuuuuuuuhhhhhh. It seemed so familiar that I couldn’t quite place it for the longest time. And then I had it.
It sounded like someone breathing.
Sleeping, to be more exact. It sounded like someone—or something—breathing while in the midst of a deep dream.
It was so faint, though, that I had almost convinced myself it was my imagination. If Alex hadn’t said something then, I probably would have ignored it.
“Does anyone else hear that?” he asked.
“Do you think it’s Karen sleeping up ahead?”
The terror that had been growing in my chest gave way for a moment. That possibility hadn’t occurred to me. “Maybe,” I said, hopeful.
I stepped a few feet into the tunnel, straining to hear. “Karen!” I called, still a little spooked, so that I didn’t do it as loud as I could. The breathing seemed to pause for a moment, but then resumed.
I started to go deeper in the tunnel, and Rachel followed.
From behind Alex asked: “What if it’s a bear?”
“We’ll figure that out when the time comes,” I said and continued without pausing.
About a hundred yards down the passage the floor fell away to a steep incline. It wasn’t a straight drop, but it would have been a nasty fall if I’d come upon it unawares. We stood there for a moment, looking into the darkness.
“I don’t think Karen came this way,” Rachel said as she and Alex crowded around me at the edge of the slope, hoping to see better.
“Neither do I,” I said. Something about the place felt wrong. There was thick dust and muck over everything. “I don’t think anyone’s been through here in a long, long while. Nothing looks like it’s been disturbed recently.”
“Right. And when did you get your Tracker’s merit badge?”
“Okay, Alex, good point. I don’t know what I’m talking about, but something about this just doesn’t seem right. I don’t think Karen would have come this way alone.”
“She could have not been paying attention and fallen,” Rachel offered.
I frowned and shook my head. Looking more closely at the ground, I noticed that the ground was much softer through this part of the cave. I looked closely and was able to spot the footprints the three of us had left as we came through. I pointed it out to the others.
“While Alex is right,” I said, “and I don’t know shit about tracking, it really only looks like three sets of tracks have come through here. I don’t see anything by the edge of the slope, either.”
“Neither do I.” The voice came from behind us so suddenly that it startled us all, but none so much as Rachel. She let out a gasp that was almost a shriek and jumped almost two feet into the air—away from the source of the sound. Which meant toward the drop off.
When she landed, a large rock slipped out from under her foot, and her momentum carried her toward the edge of the precipice. She slammed down hard on her tailbone before her momentum carried her into Alex’s legs, sending him tumbling after her. Alex cried out in either fright or pain—I couldn’t tell which—and then the two of them went crashing into the dark.
Karen was at my side and holding my hand in an instant. I nearly jumped out of my skin again, but the realization of what had just happened dawned upon me. In stunned silence, Karen and I turned toward the sound of Rachel and Alex’s calamitous journey down the slope. When the crashing came to an end, I waited for a moment before calling down after them.
“Alex? Rachel? Can you hear me? Are you all right?”
It took a second, but Alex’s voice drifted up from below.
“We’re all right. A little banged up, but nothing seems to be broken. There’s a pretty nasty drop off at the bottom here. I’m not sure we’ll be able to get back up without some rope.”
“I found a way out,” Karen yelled. “I can run back to the camp and bring rope and help.”
“Yeah, you might want to do that.”
There was something different in Alex’s voice. Something that sounded very much like fear. A second later I thought I heard Rachel say something. It sounded like a question.
“Mike,” Alex yelled. “I think there’s something down here with us.”
Then Rachel screamed.
Karen gripped my hand with one of hers and squeezed my bicep with the other. Her nails dug deep into my arm.
I gasped as Alex’s voice joined his wife’s. A second later both voices were drowned out by a sound unlike any I had heard before. Somewhere between a screech and a snarl, the sound brought goose bumps across my flesh as it echoed through the cavern.
The timbre of the screams in the dark below us changed. They went from a bone-chilling tone of fright to a sickening chorus of pain as a second screeching/snarling voice joined the first. Then a third came, and a fourth, until there were so many that it was impossible to count. Within seconds Alex and Rachel’s voices diminished. Eventually, they died out all together.
Karen began to back away from the edge of the downward slope, her face a mask of panic-stricken terror. The way her headlamp illuminated it against the utter darkness of the cave around us suddenly seemed to me the most frightening part of everything that was happening. It took me a second to realize she was still clinging to my arm and pulling me away from the slope with her.
I almost began to protest, not wanting to leave Rachel and Alex behind, but then I heard something from the pit below. The things that had attacked my friends, whatever they were, were talking to each other.
I couldn’t understand their language, but there was no doubt in my mind that what I heard was intelligent communication. This, on top of everything else, was just too much. As we turned to run, I heard something else from the bottom of the slope. Despite my better judgement, I paused and cocked my ear in order to hear what was going on. The things were still chattering to each other, but there was a strange scraping sound that I couldn’t quite place. In a gift of vision, it suddenly occurred to me that what I was hearing was these things crawling up the rocks toward us.
“Let’s go,” I said, grabbing Karen’s hand. She led the way out, taking me into the passage we’d ignored when we first heard the strange breathing sound.
“The way out is pretty far,” she said. “But if we hurry, I think we can make it.”
We took off running, with her in the lead. The cave was much rockier and wet here, not to mention that it had a fairly serious uphill grade. Our boots fought for every foothold, and we both slipped several times as we tore through the tunnel. Once or twice we lost our balance and hit the ground. As these happened more often, I became aware of sounds behind us. Scratches, grunts, and other disheartening sounds were growing louder and more frequent, and I felt the same terror from before sprung to life anew in my throat.
But each step we took brought fresher air that carried with it hope. Hope that we might actually make it to the outside. What we would do when we got there was irrelevant. One goal at a time was all my mind could handle at that point.
Karen slipped and fell, crashing down hard on her left knee. She let out a cry of pain and slumped onto her right side, cradling her knee.
We had been running for half an hour by then, and how I was able to pick her up without stopping still confounds me. But I lifted her onto my shoulder and carried her through the cavern on a wave of adrenaline. My pace was slowed, though, and I could hear the sounds of our pursuit growing closer.
“I can walk now,” Karen said several minutes later.
I grunted and picked up my pace, not trusting her knee yet. If she was wrong and stumbled again it would likely mean our deaths.
Minutes ticked by and the cave grew closer around us, making it difficult for me to carry Karen. I ducked and slid as much as I could, but the passages were shrinking and my back was starting to get pretty adamant in its protests. Not for the first time since we set out to go hiking yesterday, I made a decision.
“We’ll try it now,” I grunted. “Be ready to run the second I put you down.”
I heard in her voice the same fear that was in my mind: what if her knee won’t support her?
Pushing the thought as far into the back of my mind as I could, I paused for an instant and set her down. She stumbled on her first step, and I nearly grabbed her. But she stayed up and kept moving. I could tell it was causing her serious pain the way she was favoring it, but we were keeping a pretty brisk pace regardless.
Seconds turned to minutes and as our pace began to diminish, the sounds of pursuit were getting louder. I spared a glance back once and thought I saw something, but it had to have been my imagination. If it had been as close to us as I’d thought we would have died seconds later.
I was beginning to lose hope, beginning to think that maybe lying down and letting them have me not be so bad after all. But then it appeared. It started as no more than a thumb-sized dot, but each step I took brought it closer: sunlight.
The sight of it renewed me, and Karen must have seen it, too, because her pace quickened as well.
We were sprinting by then. How we managed to keep our feet in that rocky terrain is a topic for theologians to discuss. All that mattered was that the sunlight was getting closer, and we would be safe there.
I don’t know why I believed that, but I did. Maybe I read too many stories as a kid or maybe something was happening on a deeper, more instinctual level. Either way I thought—no, I knew—that we would be safe as soon as we hit the surface.
As if sensing the same thing as I, but preferring a different outcome, the things behind us began moving faster, narrowing the gap between us. The snarls and screams and screeches were getting louder faster than the light was getting closer. I thought I could feel the heat of their breath on my skin, and imagined they were nipping at my legs, taking tiny scrapes of flesh with them until my skin felt sunburned.
Fear and pain mounted, and with one final burst of speed I didn’t think either of us had left in reserves, we broke through the cave mouth. As I crossed into the morning sunlight, I felt a jab of pain in my left heel and went tumbling forward. I rolled head over heel down a rocky hill, eventually slamming back first into a boulder and stopping.
Through the haze of pain, I could make out several shapes in the mouth of the cavern, crossing back and forth, yammering to each other. They were pointing at me and Karen, who had run down to where I’d fallen and was leaning against the same boulder I’d crashed into, gulping air and nursing her knee. Otherwise she seemed fine.
The creatures were never completely visible. They ducked in and out of the pockets of shadow inside and around the cave. At first I thought they were very doglike, but the longer I watched them the more they took on feline characteristics.
Covered in what looked like filthy, matted fur, their snouts were long like a dog’s with large mouths and very sharp teeth. Saliva dripped from their chins and large tongues as they barked and chattered to one another. They sat on their hindquarters and held their front paws in front of them, though to call them paws is a little misleading. Long, slender fingers with sharp claws opened and closed in ways that were uncannily hand-like, and it seemed that they might even have had thumbs, but it was too far away to say.
“They seem like they’re trying to decide something,” Karen said between breaths.
She was right. I got the distinct impression that they were discussing something, and I didn’t need three questions to guess what it was.
I looked at my heel, which was now but one of many injuries commanding my attention. My whole body, especially my head, throbbed with a pain so intense I was finding it difficult to understand what was happening around me. My sock, just above the top of my hiking boot was torn and soaked in blood. I pulled myself up on the boulder and tried to put weight on my left leg and nearly passed out from the pain.
The chattering of the creatures got more excited.
Karen, seeing the extent of my injuries, and not knowing what else to do, found a long, straight stick that I could use as a crutch. I thanked her as I leaned against it, still feeling nauseous from the last attempt at walking.
I took one last look at the creatures, which seemed on the verge of disregarding whatever it was keeping them at bay and coming after us, and started moving as fast as I could away from them and down the hill. I was in too much pain to worry about whether we were headed toward the camp or not, but luckily Karen had a clearer head. She removed the old-school GPS her uncle had insisted we take with us the day before. It took her a few minutes since we were afraid to stop moving, but she got us pointed in the right direction. We thought we had the radio with us for a moment, but then we remembered that Rachel had been carrying it.
We were lucky in one small way: since we hadn’t returned the night before as expected, and since they couldn’t raise us on the radio, Karen’s aunt and uncle had organized a search party. Several of the members of this party knew about the caves in the area and had sent people to all the known entrances. We stumbled upon them about twenty minutes after exiting the cave.
Help was called in and we were escorted back to camp where the police had already arrived. They weren’t very convinced by our descriptions of the creatures or our accounts of what happened to Alex and Rachel, despite the fact that they questioned us separately and our stories matched exactly.
I can’t say I blamed them. I wouldn’t have believed me, either.
Another search party went out, headed toward the cave we used to make our escape. We warned them repeatedly and begged them not to go, but I think that just made them more suspicious of us.
Karen and I were taken to the hospital to make sure we would be well enough to be taken into custody. My achilles tendon had been severed, and the imagined cuts on the backs of my legs turned out to be real. Most of the skin on my legs and parts of my back and arms was gone. On top of that, I shattered several ribs when I hit the boulder, which was also when I got the concussion.
The good news is the doctors say I’ll be all right.
It’s just going to be a little while before they can get me in to surgery. In the meantime, I have the morphine which is administered by the all-powerful button to keep all my troubles at bay: the pain that won’t stop, the screams of Rachel and Alex that I still hear, and the feeling that those—things—are still nipping at my legs that I can’t shake.
The morphine is all that I have to help with all of that, and it isn’t working.