Working Title: The Stories We Tell Part 1 of 3 WIP
So, I blew my goal of a new post very two weeks. Between starting a new job, packing, and going out of the country for a week, I’m barely holding together. Here is something that I was working on prior to the trip, or at least the first half. I’m afraid it’s turning into a much longer story than I usually write, and so it makes sense to post it as a two parter. The second half is 1/3-halfway done, depending on how much I decide to lengthen it out. Thanks, and enjoy!
*After working on part two, this has turned into a three parter! Links to subsequent parts at the end. I also found one or two wrong names sprinkled throughout, so I tried to clean that up. Enjoy! 8/6/14
Every one of us on this chaotically spinning planet has a story, but not all stories are created equal. Some stories are grand, sweeping epics of terror, bravery, and courage. Others are the mundane but essential stories of the 9 to 5 grind, raising a family, and experiencing all the boring miracles life has to offer. There are tragic stories, funny stories, joyous ones, and those filled with heartache. The fact remains: everyone has a story.
My story begins in an upstate national park a bit off the beaten path for some not 100% approved camping—though if I were being honest, my story began in the county hospital in late fall 1987, but I don’t think all that lead up is necessary. What is important is that Jocelyn and I had been dating for about four months, and I thought it would be nice to go on a double dating trip with my college roommate Brian and his girlfriend Hayley. I was actually really nervous because Brian and Hayley had been together forever. We used to tease them in college that they acted like they had been married for 50 years, and nothing had really changed since. I kept pushing Brian to man up and put a ring on it already, but they both claimed to be against the “formalized institution of marriage.” Instead they lived together without the tax benefits and griped at one another daily. True wedded bliss.
I was really worried that Jocelyn might get the wrong idea, feel pressured into the relationship. Maybe she’d think I was moving too fast. But when Brian asked me to go camping, I couldn’t turn down a weekend with my bud, ya’ know? And when he said Hayley was coming, I knew I’d have to invite Jocelyn along to prevent that terrible third wheel syndrome. Nothing lonelier than sharing a sleeping bag with yourself in the great outdoors while people get in touch with their animal sides (not to mention other unmentionables) right nextdoor. Fortunately, Jocelyn agreed to save me from my awkward loneliness, and I spent the next week and a half stressing over all the potential ways this could go terribly wrong. Many of them ended with a long and awkward drive home with Jocelyn as the wreckage of our relationship smoldered to cold ash. When, of course, I was not devising clever ways to defend her against an inevitable bear/mountain lion attack. What stupid things we worry about.
The first night was great. We parked our car in a winding cut-off from the main forest road and hiked in for a few hours to the spot Brian just knew was right over that hill over there. While we never found the mystical clearing he promised, we did find a nice spot that was pretty close to the lake and a couple deer trails. We set up both tents, got a fire roaring, and started roasting some hot dogs over the flames. We hoped that we were far enough from any traditional trails that the fire would not be visible to a passing ranger. Plus, the summer foliage was so thick through there, you were lucky to see much of anything at a distance. Brian had labored to haul a cooler of beer all the way through the woods, so we graciously celebrated his perseverance with more than a few icy beverages.
Jocelyn and Hayley got along great, probably too well as their conversation soon turned to analyzing our shared flaws with the look of untiring patience nearing its limit. Brian and I just got louder, providing them hours of fodder.
That night Jocelyn and I turned in to our little tent. I can still remember the warmth and pressure of her tiny frame pressed up against me in the night. Or how her hair smelled like strawberries and smoke mixed together. She lay against me, my arms wrapped heavily around her as she slept peacefully. I’ve always been a rowdy drunk, but she made me sentimental too. As tired as I was, I just looked at her face in the moonlight, feeling for once that I had not entirely screwed things up. I fell asleep happy, maybe for the last time.
The next morning came way too early. When you’re in a thin tent without the home comforts of black out curtains, morning always comes too early. The campfire had cooled to low embers by the time we got up, and the morning air was unusually cool. It was summer, but beneath the heavy shade of the trees and as close as we were to the lake, the heat didn’t penetrate. I shivered, returning to the tent for a pair of socks and jeans just as Jocelyn shot out of the ten. She looked startled, and I’m sure I did too as her face hurtled towards me without warning.
“Was something out here?” she asked, her voice rising with panic.
I caught my breath, put on my bravest face. “No, nothing. Why? Did you see something?”
Her fear dissipated, confusion shifting across her face in its place, then embarrassment. “No, I guess not. Probably just the wind or a bird or something.”
“We are outside, after all,” I quipped. Judging by the shadow that passed across her face that was not the right response.
“Right.” She snapped back and then joined Hayley picking through the food and snacks still packed from our arrival. They found breakfast as we sat around the embers, listening to the woods around us begin to wake. I tried to avoid the lances of sunlight stabbing through the trees, hoping that doing so would alleviate the pain that every so often bounced through my eyes and head with very little success. Brian looked like he was in much better spirits than me.
“So, I know Brain and Mark used to go camping all the time, but have you ever gone?” I turned to the conversation between Jocelyn and Hayley just as Jocelyn replied.
“I did once or twice with my dad when we were kids. We also camped out in our backyard every summer. But it’s been a while.” I loved watching the way her face lit up as she talked about these happy childhood memories. I was head over heels and I hadn’t even realized it yet. If I could go back, I’d ask her right there to marry me, and then die happy.
“It’s great to find someone else who knows her way around a tent. If it goes well, maybe we’ll make this a regular summer tradition,” smiled Hayley, her eyes sneaking towards me. I saw Jocelyn look at me and smile.
“I could probably handle that.”
All the pain in the world couldn’t keep me from gazing into those sunlit eyes right then. She was beautiful all that time, but something about her tousled hair, faded makeup, and the crisp green forest behind her was irresistible. And she was willing to give a noncommittal agreement to potentially staying with me for another year. Life was good.
As she turned back to talk to Hayley about her previous camping trips, I noticed something moving. Even now, I have trouble remembering exactly how to describe it. It was almost like the sunbeam falling just to the right of Jocelyn was shining, like it had been doused with glitter. The light there bent and warped in unnatural ways, almost like heat waves on hot pavement. But this was brighter and more real. Unlike those mirages, this shape truly had some kind of form to it. Two flecks of light grew more apparent, solidifying into two round spots darting through the light. At one point, they turned towards me and I got the distinct feeling of eyes. As it “looked” at me, I could begin to make out an image. It was a body that was there and wasn’t all at once. Again, like a heat mirage on the road wavers and fades, it struggled into focus, but I don’t think I ever really saw it. It was small, just a few feet off the ground. Thin, with no other discernible feature besides those watching eyes. The eyes danced around us, flitting from sunshine to shade.
I’ve thought a lot about that shape. About the “body” of that thing. It always seems like I can see it in my mind, but when I focus on it, there’s nothing there. Nothing in my memory but the firm recollection that that shadow and sunlight were different than any others. Like it couldn’t—like it can’t really exist in our world. I’m stuck with the endless torture of surety and doubt that I even saw a flicker of the supernatural on that day.
“Seen a ghost?” shouted Brian, dropping heavily next to me on the log. I winced at the noise, but it shook me out of my study of the figure that wasn’t really there.
“No, just admiring the scenery.” I motioned in the direction where I had been staring for far too long. Nothing there but some dust floating through the air. I told myself I had just drunk too much last night, and this was my payback.
Brian took a deep breath f the cool morning air, weighing the view in his own eyes for a moment. “It is pretty great out here, huh?” He smiled, pleased with his good idea and at peace with the moment, but Brian never was one to stay reflective for long. “So Hayley told me about some sort of mountains around here or something—”
Hayley jumped in to provide the much needed content to Brian’s half-formed idea. “They’re caves, Bri. Your ‘genetic selective deafness’ kicks in at the worst times.”
“And caves are in mountains, right?” There was a brief prickle of tension in the air between them as he spun to face her, but it fizzled away as she shook her head with a smile.
“My logician,” she laughed to Hayley, making a sweeping gesture toward Brian. Jocelyn laughed and the two women turned to join Brian and I in the thus far riveting conversation.
“So, like I said, there are some caves in some mountains around here,” he began again, glancing sideways from his eyes to Hayley with his correction and addition, “and I thought—Hayley thought it would be fun to go spe—” Brian’s face became confused momentarily as he tried to find the right word. “Cave exploring,” he substituted, looking at Hayley for confirmation.
“Yes, cave exploring,” she shook her head again and I began to worry that she would sprain her neck at the frequency of such an exercise. “Have you ever been spelunking, Mark?”
Before I could answer, Brian broke in. “Spelunking! That was it. That’s one of those weird German words, right? Like schadenfreude?”
No one answered him, but Brian did not mind as he continued to roll the word around again and again, swearing to remember it for the rest of the day. “I haven’t ever, really. Don’t we need gear for that? Light lights, ropes, harnesses, helmets, shovels—” I began, wondering why I had not considered caving accidents in my fevered anxiety about harm befalling Jocelyn.
Jocelyn, however, cut me off with a laugh and a wave of her hands. “The caves around here are pretty much harmless little things that go a few miles in. We have our flashlights and as long as we don’t dive down any massive black holes, we don’t need that other stuff. We can just wander in, take a lunch, and eat in the ‘belly of the earth.'” She ended with a gravelly voice that reminded me of old voiceovers from those B Sci-fi movies she always insisted we watch.
“But won’t we get lost?” I added, feeling a knot of panic rising in my chest.
“Geez Gretel, we’ll leave a breadcrumb trail for you to get back out, okay? I brought some chalk to mark any hiking we did, anyways,” scoffed Brian.
The panic subsided, but I still felt a raw sense of unease. There was no logical reason, I was sure, but I was nevertheless certain that this would not end well. But Jocelyn looked excited to do so, already swapping caving stories with Hayley, and I did not want to let her down.
We packed day bags with water bottles, chips, peanut butter sandwiches, and a few pieces of fruit a piece. Jocelyn seemed really excited about the cave picnic idea, and I was beginning to warm up to the idea myself. If all went well, I was sure that Brian and Hayley would sneak off on their own for a few minutes, leaving Jocelyn and I alone in the dark, cold cave. In my head, the concept seemed more romantic than when I try to describe it, which might have something to do with my general ineptitude at all things classically romantic. I was never going to be the devilishly suave Harlequin Hunk. That just wasn’t my story.
We began our hike through the woods, following Hayley’s suggestion and moving back towards the main road. About halfway there, she found the marked trail that led to the caves, at least according to the friends she had heard about them from. Jocelyn agreed.
“I didn’t take you for a spelunker,” I smiled as we walked side by side. That same nostalgic glow covered her face again.
“I went once or twice with friends in college, but I’ve wanted to go again. It’s just the right mix of spooky, dangerous, and exciting.”
“So you went to these caves? I mean, you’ll be able to play tour guide for us, right?”
She laughed. “I’ve only been a couple of times. But, I do know a couple of pretty interesting spots to investigate.” The suggestive lilt of her voice confirmed my own romanticized caving ideas, but also led to a hint of jealousy and insecurity. I knew she was a human who had dated other people before, but nevertheless, I felt a little angry that I would have to explore those spots she had already explored with someone else. It was stupid, really, but human nature.
“Oh, so I guess you really enjoyed your little outings, huh?” I tried to remain joking, keeping a smile plastered to my face, but I could hear that slighted edge to my voice. Her smile faded a degree as she looked to me with concern.
“Oh, man, that’s probably pretty weird for you, huh?”
“What? No. I mean, we’re both adults and all—” Her eyes pinned me to the spot, and I sighed, deflated. “Okay, it’s a little weird.”
Jocelyn smiled again, taking my hand in hers as we continued following Brian and Hayley ahead. “Don’t worry; I know you’re not some jealous monster. It’s always weird to think about past partners. God knows I try to forget you ever hooked up with Macy. How about this: you and I can find out own spot to explore together. “
“Only if you swear to tell me afterwards that it’s the best spot you’ve ever explored,” I joked back, easing into the conversation again. She was perfect—understanding and funny in one amazingly gorgeous package.
She laughed and planted a brief kiss on my cheek as we walked. “Deal.”
We walked that way, hand in hand for a while until Hayley got turned around again. Jocelyn skipped to the front of the group and led the way. By that time, the hike had caught up with me. I was beginning to get hungry, and carrying even the relatively light pack was a chore. I did not want to be grumpy on our adventure, but I could feel it sneaking up on me.
Then, Jocelyn stopped and pointed up a short mountain or tall hill to another signpost sitting in front of a shadowed rock overhang. “Entrance is just there. Maybe a water break before we go?”
She was an angel. I collapsed onto a rock, dragging out a water bottle and gulping furiously. The cool morning air had been replaced by heavy, wet heat that sat on my shoulders like an unpleasant child. My stomach rumbled unhappily, but I ignored it. Jocelyn wanted her cave picnic, and I was going to give her a cave picnic.
Our break was short-lived as we quickly repacked the bags and dragged ourselves up the faint outline of a path. The sign marking the entrance was badly faded by the weather. There had once been a great deal of writing on it, but most of that was now just shallow ridges in the wood. The once bright red “WARNING” was still clear, now faded to a pale suggestion of red, but the remainder was illegible. Beside the entrance was a metal plaque, similarly eroded by its time on the mountain. Jocelyn filled in the missing letters. “Kepperman Cavern,” she chirped, indicating the entrance with a broad flourish. Her cheeks were flushed, strands of dark brown hair clinging to her sweaty face as she smiled broadly.
I pushed aside my clinging uneasiness. I was being ridiculous, really. Seeing the joy on Jocelyn’s face, I resolved to enjoy myself. Even if it was a bit out of character for me, today I would be a spelunker. For her.
I was confident as I walked towards the entrance, laughing good naturedly at some joke Brian made. I was confident peering into the dark and deciding to get out a flashlight. I was confident as the first beams of light played along the cold gray walls of the depths. But I was decidedly not confident as I saw two specks of gold floating in the darkness, as I saw a sunbeam dance across a room it could not exist in. In that moment, I was stupid. And I plunged into the darkness.
Hope you enjoyed it and, as always, feel free to leave any helpful comments or critiques!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.